Serafim Smigelskiy, the cellist in the Tesla Quartet, playing alone in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Photo by Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Happy New Year!

Photo by Martin Stranka, "Until You Wake Up" (2015)

Faces of Classical Music
wish you a
Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2019

Recording of the Year

Ludwig van Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas

Igor Levit, piano

Recorded at Neumarkt, Historischer Reitstadel, and Hanover, Leibniz Saal, and Berlin, Siemensvilla, in 2013-2018
Released on September 13, 2019 by Sony Classical

Six years ago Igor Levit burst on to the recording scene, making his debut with Beethoven's last five sonatas at the age of just 26. Now he completes that cycle, adding the remaining 27 sonatas to Opp. 101, 106 and 109-111 (which he hasn't re-recorded); these have been set down over the past three years, the most recent in January 2019; Sony has done wonders in providing a consistently fine sound, detailed and natural-sounding, across two different venues, in Hanover and Neumarkt – and so has his piano technician. The notes, too, by Anselm Cybinski, chime with Levit's intellectual world view.

So far, so good: what of the music-making? That he is so inside these pieces will come as no surprise, for he has been performing complete cycles around the world for some time now. As you'd predict from an artist who combines acute intelligence and technical panache, it’s utterly absorbing. It's also a cycle that doesn't have favourites – Levit feels equally committed to every single piece. It doesn't necessarily follow that everything is a triumph, but his attention to detail is very beguiling.

Take, for instance, the Op.7 Sonata, not usually a headline act in concert programmes, but Levit finds an energy and sparkle that lights it up, the repeated left-hand E flat never allowed a moment's heaviness, while the development delights in its Haydnesque combination of gruff humour, skittish shifts of harmonic direction, dramatic juxtapositions of extreme dynamics and, of course, silence. In the Largo, con gran espressione Levit reveals Beethoven the visionary – for the first time it struck me how much this prefigures the opening of the Fourth Concerto. The Allegro is darker and more uneasy than Goode's and in the chewy intensity of the Minore section Levit makes you aware of how much Schubert learnt from this. The minor-key episode in the rondo finale has drama but never becomes metallic in tone.

Space precludes me from too much in-depth analysis, so what follows are a few observations. From the very opening of the first sonata of Op.2 he draws you into Beethoven's world of fierce unpredictability, alive to the unease of the opening Allegro and the subversion of the menuet genre in the third movement, while the Prestissimo finale has a tremendous clarity despite its pace (it never feels merely fast). In the second sonata he reminds us at every turn that Haydn was Beethoven's teacher. And the slow movements of all three are beautifully judged, as is the irresistibly gossamer Scherzo of No.2. The finale of No.3, with its treacherous chordal writing, is also dispatched with tremendous panache.

If his reading of the Moonlight's opening movement doesn't quite have the hypnotic quality conjured by Osborne, he reminds us that its Op.27 sibling is every bit as groundbreaking. From a perfectly poised opening, he gives the quietly powerful arpeggios of the second movement a sense of desperation that is in stark contrast to the solemnity of the third; and the hurtling momentum of the finale never becomes bombastic.

The Op.10 set also has some very fine things in it – the slow movement of the first has a true quietness in its soul, which makes the Prestissimo finale all the more thrilling, while he brings to the Allegretto middle movement of No.2 an edgy playfulness. But the opening movement of Op.10 No.1 sounds too pushed, making the songful second subject sound rushed, certainly compared to Goode. The witty repartee between the two hands in the finale of Op.10 No.2 is also too breathless for my liking. But the Largo e mesto of No.3 has real desolation, followed by a Menuetto of wonderful tenderness.

There are other moments where I think his tempos are too hasty – the finales of Op.26 and Opp. 78 and 79, for instance, or the heady rush that is "Le retour" in Les adieux. But offsetting this is that sense of engagement with the smallest details. Just sample the closing moments of that first movement of Les adieux, in which he builds to an almost unbearable pitch of yearning, which is then abruptly cut off by the last two chords.

When that energy is put to good use it can emphasise the visceral thrill of Beethoven's writing. The Appassionata (a work I can take or leave) sounds new minted. From the opening phrase, the piece unfolds with a complete sense of inevitability, the first-movement development thrilling. And how songful the Andante con moto's theme sounds, Levit always illuminating both texturally and emotionally. He relishes the extremes as we move into the finale but such is the focus, the unblinking sense of inevitability about how it goes, that it never feels forced.

Another highlight is the Waldstein, the repeated C major left-hand chords underpinning a tensile energy that runs through the entire opening movement. But it’s not about momentum: Levit colours and shapes it with such finesse – withdrawing the sound to a whisper and then building to a great billowing wave. The Adagio molto is remarkable in the way he stills the mood, conjuring an atmosphere that sounds almost like a postscript to Schubert's Winterreise. As the music gradually comes back to life his finale is engagingly ebullient.

It also says much for Levit's maturity that the last five sonatas still sound very much of a piece in terms of the way he thinks. Yes, there are moments where I don't entirely agree with his decisions – the opening of Op 109 is a little careful-sounding, while moments in the variations of Op 111's Arietta are a touch on the slow side – but the Hammerklavier's fugue is still a thing of magnificent power and, above all, there's that sense of being completely at one with Beethoven himself. And that, in the end, is what makes this such a magnificent achievement.

Source: Harriet Smith (

Igor Levit made his debut on disc in 2013 with Beethoven sonatas, and not just any group of sonatas, but the final five, Opp 101, 106, 109, 110 and 111, which rank among the greatest works ever composed for the instrument. A startlingly self-confident way in which to launch a recording career, Levit followed it up, two years later, with the release of his account of Beethoven's monumental Diabelli Variations, as part of a set that also included Bach's Goldberg Variations and Frederic Rzewski's Variations on The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Levit has only now completed his cycle of the sonatas, with the original 2013 performances re-released alongside recordings of the other 27 made between the end of 2017 and the beginning of this year.

Though three different recording locations – Hanover, Neumarkt and Berlin – were used across the cycle, the piano sound is wonderfully consistent throughout the nine discs and conveys every gradation of Levit’s pearly sound world. His original set of the last five sonatas was remarkable, almost mature beyond his years (he was just 26 when he recorded it), so that in one sense it’s not at all surprising that he has now chosen to retain those performances as part of the complete set. But there does seem to be a distinct difference of approach between the earlier deeply considered, thoughtful accounts and some of what one hears in his treatment of the earlier sonatas, where tempi seem more extreme, and the music is given less space to breathe.

Some movements, especially of the middle-period sonatas, are taken so fast that they become almost meaningless. The final Allegro vivace of the little F sharp major sonata Op 78, for instance, is turned into a grotesque caricature, instead of the witty throwaway that Levit surely intended it to be, while however beautifully he floats the opening theme of the last movement of the Waldstein Sonata Op 53, it seems only a preparation for a hell-for-leather attack on the coda, much as the finale of Les Adieux, Op 81a is taken just too fast to really make its point. The clarity of the playing at such speeds is often dazzling; it’s the musical sense that is lost.

The best of Levit’s performances, then, are certainly outstanding – returning to the five late sonatas, particularly, some years after last listening to them, they do stand up very well indeed – but just a bit too much of the rest seems to try far too hard to create an effect, or to search for a new approach. As a whole for consistency it does not match what’s perhaps the finest of recent versions, András Schiff’s live performances for ECM, or any of the established classic sets – Claudio Arrau’s (now on Decca), Daniel Barenboim’s first cycle from the 1960s (Warner) or Emil Gilels’ frustratingly incomplete one for Deutsche Grammophon.

Source: Andrew Clements (

Domenico Scarlatti: 52 Sonatas

Lucas Debargue, piano

Recorded at the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin-Dahlem, on September 15-23, 2018
Released on October 4, 2019 by Sony Music

"Since Glenn Gould's visit to Moscow and Van Cliburn's victory at the Tchaikovsky Competition in the heat of the Cold War, never has a foreign pianist provoked such frenzy." — Le Huffington Post, 2015

The uncommon talent of Lucas Debargue was revealed by his performances at the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow in 2015. Though placed fourth at the final round, he was the only contestant across all disciplines to receive the coveted Moscow Music Critic's Prize as a pianist "whose incredible gift, artistic vision and creative freedom have impressed the critics as well as the audience".

Following this breakthrough, Lucas was invited to play solo and with leading orchestras in the most prestigious venues: Theatre des Champs Elysées and Philharmonie in Paris; London's Wigmore Hall and Royal Festival Hall; Berlin Philharmonic and Prinzregententheater in Munich; Stockholm's Konzerthuset; the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam; the Milan Conservatory; Carnegie Hall; Chicago Symphony Hall Kennedy Center in Washington; Maison de la Musique in Montreal, the Royal Conservatory of Toronto; the concert halls of Mexico City, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul; and of course the legendary Grand Hall of Tchaikovsky Conservatory and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow, the Mariinsky Concert Hall and the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg.

Lucas Debargue regularly collaborates with Valery Gergiev, Mikhail Pletnev, Vladimir Jurowski, Andrey Boreyko, Yutaka Sado, Tugan Sokhiev, Vladimir Fedoseev, Bertrand de Billy, and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. His chamber music partners include Gidon Kremer, Janine Jansen, and Martin Frost.

In the 2019-2020 season, Mr. Debargue will make his mainstage Carnegie Hall debut with the American Symphony Orchestra and Leon Botstein. He will also perform in Boston, Toronto and Montreal. A tour with the Russian National Orchestra and Maestro Pletnev will take him to the Middle East and Switzerland, while Berlin will welcome him back to the Konzerthaus with Shostakovich First Concerto and music by a living Russian composer, Leonid Desyatnikov.

Born in 1990, Mr. Debargue forged a highly unconventional path to success. He began to study music when he was 11, but soon switched to literature and graduated from Paris Diderot 7 University as a Bachelor of Arts. In his teens, he continued to explore piano repertoire on his own.

At the age of 20 Mr. Debargue decided to re-dedicate himself to the piano and started his professional training at the Paris Cortot Music School under the guidance of the celebrated piano teacher Rena Shereshevskaya. It was her vision and support that helped him make a commitment to music for life. In 2014, Mr. Debargue won the First Prize at the Gaillard International Piano Competition (France), which gave him the confidence to paticipate and, eventually, to become one of the prize winners in the Tchaikovsky Competition.

A performer of fierce integrity and dazzling communicative power, Lucas Debargue draws inspiration for his playing from literature, painting, cinema, jazz, and develops very personal interpretation of a carefully selected repertoire. Though the core piano repertoire is central to his career, he is also keen to present works by lesser-known composers like Nikolai Medtner, Nikolai Roslavets, or Milosz Magin.

He also composes and performs his own music. Orpheo di camera concertino for piano, drums and string orchestra was premiered with Kremerata Baltica in Latvia in 2017. A Piano Trio was created later that year under the auspices of the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris.

A Sony recording artist, Lucas Debargue has released three solo albums with music of Scarlatti, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Medtner and Szymanowsky. He collaborated with Janine Jansen, Martin Fröst, and Torleif Thedéen on a recording of Messian's Quatuor pour la fin du Temps. The coming season will be marked by the release of Mr. Debargue's monumental four-volume tribute to Scarlatti, containing 52 of his sonatas.

In 2017 Lucas Debaruge was awarded a prestigious German prize "ECHO Klassik". In the same year, a documentary following the pianist right after his Tchaikovsky Competition break-through was released by Bel-Air Productions.


Lucas Debargue breathes new life into the harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and presents works outside the standard piano repertoire. The Parisian pianist has already climbed the pinnacle of piano artistry with Beethoven, Liszt and Ravel and unleashed full-blown romantic thunderstorms with Schubert's A minor Piano Sonata No.14 and the madcap finale of Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit. Now, on his new album, Debargue devotes himself completely to Domenico Scarlatti. He already played four of this Italian masters sonatas on his highly acclaimed début album. Germany's Der Spiegel waxed ecstatic: "Debargue's Scarlatti recalls his mighty predecessors. He displays the subtle touch and feeling once bestowed on these miniatures by Vladimir Horowitz and imparts new sound to Scarlatti's keyboard music. Debargue touches the outer limits of expression between joylessness and rapture: one may find it overwrought, but its never less than gripping. And then theres the gentle Glenn Gould touch". Debargue is excited at his new project: "Scarlatti is inspiring. He is the centre of my musical thought as regards music for keyboard instruments". He goes on: "I took it as a sort of personal mission to finally do something with him. Though Scarlatti generally lacks a firm place in the repertoire hes not heard very often and is almost never the mainstay of a recital hes one of those milestones that every pianist must turn to".


Facce d'amore – Giovanni Battista Bononcini, Giovanni Antonio Boretti, Pietro Francesco Cavalli, Francesco Bartolomeo Conti, George Frideric Handel, Johann Adolph Hasse, Nicola Matteis, Giovanni Maria Orlandini, Luca Antonio Predieri, Alessandro Scarlatti

Jakub Józef Orliński, countertenor

Il pomo d'Oro

Conductor: Maxim Emelyanchev

Recorded at Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, on March 15-21, 2019

Released on November 8, 2019 by Erato/Warner Classics

Facce d'amore, "Faces of love" follows Jakub Józef Orliński's first solo album, Anima Sacra, which moved Gramophone magazine to announce that "This is a voice with a big future", and The Sunday Times, having extolled the "the unearthly beauty of Orliński's tone, his pearly coloratura and fabulous breath control", to say, "He's only 28, but this is a special voice to look out for". It brings a switch from the sacred to the personal and passionate. As the Polish-born, New York-trained countertenor says, the programme – which includes eight world premiere recordings – comprises "operatic arias that tell a story, showing a musical picture of a male lover in the baroque era – not only the positive side, like joyful or reciprocated love, but also anger or even madness". Spanning some 85 years of the baroque period, the arias on Facce d'amore are by Handel, Cavalli, Alessandro Scarlatti, Bononcini, Conti, Hasse, Orlandini, Predieri and Matteis. Orliński is again partnered by the instrumentalists of Il Pomo d'Oro and their Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

The new album brings a switch from the sacred to the personal and passionate. As the Polish-born, New York-trained singer explains: "On Anima Sacra I wanted to take listeners on a spiritual journey through an entire programme based on sacred music of the 18th century. The idea behind Facce d’amore is a bit different".

The programme – which includes an impressive eight world premiere recordings – comprises "operatic arias that tell a story, showing a musical picture of a male lover in the baroque era. They focus on totally different aspects of love – not only the positive side, like joyful or reciprocated love, but also the side where the characters are possessed by anger or even madness".

The album, which spans some 85 years of the baroque period, includes arias by major figures like Handel, Cavalli and Alessandro Scarlatti, by composers whose names have regained currency over recent decades, like Bononcini, Conti and Hasse (who wrote the virtuosic "Sempre a si vaghi rai" – one of the album's world premieres – for the legendary castrato Farinelli), and by relatively obscure names like Orlandini, Predieri and Matteis. As for Anima Sacra, the bass-baritone Yannis François advised on the conception and compilation of the programme for Facce d'amore, while Orliński's performance partners are again the instrumentalists of Il Pomo d'Oro and their Principal Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev.

A great deal has happened in Jakub Józef Orliński's career since the release of Anima Sacra, which has taken his name around the world. The New Yorker magazine has summed him up with the headline "A millennial countertenor's pop-star appeal", while his assumption of the title role in Handel's Rinaldo at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in August 2019 led the Financial Times to write that: "Jakub Józef Orliński is the new countertenor on the block. In the short time that he was been singing at the top level he has matured at speed and his Rinaldo is the number one reason for catching this run of performances".


Julia Wolfe: Fire in my mouth

The Crossing
Chorus Conductor: Donald Nally | Assistant Conductor: Kevin Vondrak

Young People's Chorus of New York City
Chorus Conductor: Francisco J. Núñez

New York Philharmonic
Conductor: Jaap van Zweden

Recorded live at David Geffen Hall, New York City, on January 24, 2019
Released on August 30, 2019 by Decca Gold

Julia Wolfe's Fire in my mouth is one of 2019's most memorable recordings; Donnacha Dennehy's The Hunger, a meditation on the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century, leaves an indelible impression; Derek Bermel's Migrations is a grand celebration of one of America's great living composers at the top of his game.

What makes a new piece of music important? There are many reasons, certainly, but three prime ingredients usually involve: how it breaks new stylistic or technical ground; speaks to the moment in some fundamental, significant way; and, lastly, that it's just good music. Julia Wolfe's Fire in my mouth, a four-movement cantata for women's chorus, children's choir, and orchestra, checks all those boxes.

Wolfe's score takes the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire as its point of departure. 146 workers, most of them Eastern European immigrants to the United States died in that blaze in lower Manhattan more than a century ago. Fire in my mouth doesn't tell each of their stories. Instead, it seeks to paint a broader picture of the plight of immigrants and laborers, past and present, in this country, as well as the continuing work to improve social, working, and living conditions for the least of those among us.

That's a tall order, yes, but Wolfe's a no-nonsense composer. Her musical language is rooted in Minimalism as well as the energy of the best of rock and popular music of the '60s, '70s, and '80s. And it pairs remarkably well with the work's texts, all of which are culled from primary sources.

The first movement, "Immigration", evokes a trans-Atlantic crossing, with widely spaced orchestral sonorities and shimmering, responsive choral writing. In the second, "Factory", the orchestra conjures a mechanistic din, after which a Yiddish lament is paired with a ribald tarantella. "Protest", the third movement, commemorates the efforts of early-20th-century labor activists like Clara Lemlich, while the concluding "Fire" sets the reminiscences of survivors and ends with a recitation of all the victims' names.

So how do those three points from above play out in Fire in my mouth?

Well, even if Wolfe doesn't reinvent herself, stylistically, here, the cumulative effect of her writing in Fire in my mouth is visceral. This is music that grabs you by the collar and commands your attention with its emotional directness and gestural flexibility (like the brilliantly inventive orchestral factory section of the second movement). It speaks to the day with its timeless themes of hope, suffering, perseverance, and tragedy. And, as music, it manages to be both aesthetically honest and totally approachable. In a word, Fire in my mouth is contemporary music that demands to be heard.

Its debut recording, featuring the New York Philharmonic (NYPO), Young People's Chorus of New York City, and The Crossing, leaves nothing to be desired. The Philharmonic hasn't played much Wolfe (Fire in my mouth is only the second big piece of hers they've ever performed), but they dig into this score with complete assurance and command. The vocal element – 146 voices strong – is glowingly precise in balance, diction, and tone. Jaap van Zweden presides over it all with a sure hand, demonstrating his excellence as a purveyor of new music and proving he's a worthy successor to Alan Gilbert in this department as the NYPO's new director.

The bottom line: Fire in my mouth's January premiere was one of the year's most significant. This recording is one of 2019's most memorable. Don't miss it.

Source: Jonathan Blumhofer (

Franz Schubert: Winterreise, Op.89 D.911

Ian Bostridge, tenor
Thomas Adès, piano

Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, London, in September 2018
Released on August 23, 2019, by Pentatone

When I came back from a press-conference earlier this year with the news that Ian Bostridge was to record Schubert's three great song-cycles for Pentatone, I met with a chorus of "Again?", "Already?", and "Why?". It's barely a decade since the idiosyncratic British tenor completed the trilogy on Warner Classics, where Leif Ove Andsnes accompanied him on a "Winter's Journey" of such pathos and chilly beauty that the recording (released in 2004) quickly became my own personal benchmark for the work.

In a sense, though, it was inevitable that Bostridge would return to Winterreise in different company, as many of his predecessors have done (Fischer-Dieskau, for instance, recorded the work with nearly a dozen pianists); as he muses towards the end of his 2015 book Winter's Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, the idea of "endless repetition" is hardwired into the cycle itself in that the final song sees the protagonist tentatively approaching a new accompanist with whom to repeat the whole sorry saga. Bostridge's companion for this second journey is of course a far more distinguished and respected musician than the destitute old busker of Wilhelm Müller's bleak final poem – the composer, conductor and pianist Thomas Adès, for whom he created the role of Caliban in The Tempest, and indeed there's something of Shakespeare's apparently monstrous outsider in the character they bring to life together here.

So what fresh insights has Bostridge uncovered in the intervening years? Short answer: plenty. One of the remarkable things about this new reading is just how much of the extensive scholarly work which both he and Adès have undertaken translates readily into sound: Bostridge, for instance, spends much of the early chapters of Anatomy of an Obsession exploring the idea of the protagonist as unreliable narrator, and whilst this may sound unduly academic on paper it comes across loud and clear on the recording. From the outset this wanderer is perceptibly less simpatico, more disingenuous than his earlier incarnation: instead of a greenhorn experiencing heartbreak for the first time, the impression is of an older, embittered man who's spent years re-playing this story in his head and occasionally tweaking it to garner sympathy from his imagined audience. Throughout, there's the sense of re-opening old wounds rather than smarting from recent ones, though the pain is if anything more immediate; it helps that the voice itself is rougher round the edges than it was in 2004, and that Bostridge takes more overt expressive risks these days, though there's still some hypnotically beautiful singing in songs like Das Wirthaus and an eerily elongated Die Krähe (taken almost twice as slow as on the recording with Andsnes).

Adès, too, has done much homework on the various editions of the score, and his playing has such clarity that every detail registers: staccatos where we're used to hearing slurs, dynamic shifts in slightly different places, and appoggiaturas which are usually glossed over all make their presence felt, as do the unsettling cross-rhythms as the post-van rattles its way into town more unsteadily than on most recordings. Much of the overall magic derives from Adès's willingness to play straight man to Bostridge's more Expressionist protagonist: if the singer flirts with Sprechstimme in places (perhaps inspired by his performances of Hans Zender's "composed interpretation" of the piece several years ago), Adès's playing put me in mind of András Schiff's recent Schubert recordings, and some of the colours he draws from the Wigmore's Steinway sound for all the world like they emanate from a Brodmann or Érard. As with Bostridge's endlessly illuminating, enriching book on the subject, the balance between pointing up the work's strange modernity and engaging with its historical context is immaculately judged, and much of the beauty of the interpretation stems from the contrast between the two.

The biggest surprise, though, comes at the beginning of the final song: instead of the bare open fifth which usually announces the presence of the ghostly hurdy-gurdy man, we get a jarringly dissonant chord which I've never come across before on disc or in print. The effect is profoundly uncanny, and I'd love to know its provenance...

Postscript: Pentatone's UK distributor, RSK, very kindly contacted Thomas Adès to answer my final question shortly after the article was published: his answer is reproduced below.

"What I think Schubert is trying to notate with that appoggiatura at the start of Der Leiermann is the ‘tuning up’ effect that you might get with a hurdy-gurdy, as the drone scoops up to the note. It is supposed to suggest instability and ‘poor’ intonation, a ‘poor’ quality of instrumental sound. I found that playing the grace note virtually (though not quite) simultaneously with the downbeat, and releasing it gradually into the fifth, obtains the closest illusion of this effect that a piano can achieve."

Source: Katherine Cooper (

[Bostridge's] voice was superb – the warm penumbra he had when younger is gone, but that is a gain, as out of it has come polished steel. — New York Classical Review

[Adès] has outgrown his status as the wunderkind of a vibrant British scene and become one of the most imposing figures in contemporary music. — The New Yorker 

Gustav Mahler: "Titan", Eine Tondichtung in Symphonieform (Hamburg / Weimar 1893-1894 version)

Les Siècles (On period instruments)
Conductor: François-Xavier Roth

Recorded 2018
Released on May 10, 2019 by Harmonia mundi

Forget the Mahler First you know and travel back to the work's second incarnation. This is Titan, a five-movement symphonic poem with a very definite programme, which Mahler later dropped: a man's heroic but ultimately fruitless battle with fate. Playing mainly Austro-German instruments appropriate to the period, Les Siècles make a compelling case for this precursor of Symphony No.1. Beautifully judged, vividly characterised and with a gorgeous range of colours – the later-discarded second movement, "Blumine", is heavenly – this is another triumph for conductor François-Xavier Roth.


Gustav Mahler was not yet thirty years old when he mounted the podium to conduct his "Symphonic Poem" (Sinfonische Dichtung) in the Large Hall of the Redoute (Vigadó) in Budapest on 20 November 1889. The young man, who had recently been appointed director of the Hungarian capital's opera house, was presenting an orchestral composition for the first time that evening. This work, which Mahler thought would be "child's play", was in fact – as he was to admit years later – "one of [his] boldest". It is the crystallisation of his childhood, marked by the successive deaths of his brothers and sisters but also by the brutality of his father. The work also embodies the dreams that this rebellious young student at the Vienna Conservatory had already forged some ten years earlier, with the new generation of artists and thinkers of which he was a member.

In this album, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles have chosen to present Mahler's First Symphony in its second version, that of Hamburg / Weimar (1893-1894) – a unique opportunity to hear the symphonic poem Titan. By allowing us to follow the genesis of this first large scale work, Titan opens the doors of Mahler's artistic workshop at a crucial moment in the creative process: the transition from the youthful effort of 1889 to the Symphony in D major of 1896, which established Mahler as one of the foremost symphonists of the modern era.


Not the familiar version of Mahler's Symphony No.1, but the "real" Mahler Titan at last, as it might have sounded in Mahler's time! François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles present the symphony in its second version, based on the Hamburg / Weimar performances of 1893-1894. This score is edited by Reinhold Kubik and Stephen E. Hefling for Universal Edition AG. Wien.

This allows us, as Anna Stoll Knecht and Benjamin Garzia of the Médiathèque Musicale Mahler note, "to follow the genesis of this first large-scale work, (which) opens the doors of Mahler's artistic workshop at a crucial moment in the creative process". Mahler extensively revised his very first version, premiered in Budapest in 1889. For the Hamburg performance, in October 1893, he described it as "The Titan, A Tone Poem in the form of a symphony" in five parts, each with programmatic titles. In Weimar, in June 1894, he adapted it further, so it was no longer a symphonic poem but a "symphony". While the text accompanying the Weimar performance retained the programmatic titles from Hamburg, the score was now devoid of them, heralding the transition from symphonic poem to the Symphony in D major, as the Berlin version from 1896 was to be called. Donald Mitchell has compared this working process to building with scaffolding, which is later removed to reveal the finished structure. Even after publication, Mahler reserved the right to make further revisions, continuing to do so until the last performance he conducted, in New York in 1909.

While the edition of the score is of great interest, the performance itself is superb, definitely worth hearing on its own merits. Roth has conducted the standard version many times, but here he conducts Les Siècles "sur instruments d'époque", using instruments of Mahler's time. They use instruments which would have been used in the pit of the Vienna Court Opera and the Musikverein, and selected Viennese oboes, German flutes, clarinets and bassoons, German and Viennese horns and trumpets, and German trombones and tubas. "These instruments are built quite differently from their French contemporaries", writes Roth. "The fingerings, the bores and even the mouthpieces of the clarinets were completely new to our musicians. The wind instruments have a singular quality that exactly matches the rhetoric of the Austro-German music of that time, with a darker colour than that of the instruments then used in France. Perhaps they are also more powerful, and their articulation is a little slower. In the case of the string section, each instrument is set up with bare gut for the higher strings and spun gut for the lower ones. Gut strings give you a sound material totally different from metal strings, more highly developed harmonics, and incisiveness in the attack and articulation." Each instrument is individually identified, as are the players.

This approach to instrumentation infuses the performance, giving it an invigorating sense of vitality. Given that Mahler was embarking on new adventures, Roth and Les Siècles capture the spirit of the piece with extraordinary expressiveness. The first movement of the first part, "Frühling und kein Ende" comes alive from the start. Period horns emerge from the rustling strings to create an earthiness entirely in keeping with the idea of Spring and burgeoning new growth. The woodwinds call the "kuck-kuck" motif with such purity that they sound like birds. The movement builds up to a crescendo so joyous that it seems to explode with energy and freedom. In the song "Ging heut' Morgen über's Feld" the protagonist hears the birds sing "Ist's nicht eine schöne Welt? Ei, du! Gelt? Schöne Welt!". Though the song ends on a minor key, Mahler ends the movement with a punch of an exuberant timpani.

In the past, the "Blumine" movement has been attached to what is now known as Mahler's Symphony No.1, even though the composer himself pointedly removed it. The result is neither sympohony noit "symphonic poem" but a hybrid. Mahler dropped the piece, finding it too "sentimental", a "youthful folly" (Jugend-Eselei), and it does inhibit the flow of the symphony. "Blumine" includes passages from "Der Trompeter von Säckingen", incidental music to a play he'd written in 1884. Hence the prominent trumpet part, which here is particularly beautifully played: almost as evocative as the post horn in Mahler's Third Symphony, though "Blumine" is a much slighter piece. The mellowness of the instruments Les Siècles employ enhances the section's function as a throwback to past times. There's not much point in including it as an add-on these days when the full symphony is so well known, so it's better to hear it in proper context, as this new edition offers. It operates as an andante to the much more sophisticated scherzo of the (third) movement here. Originally titled "Mit vollen Segeln", it's played here with ebullient verve: the trio part earthy Ländler, part cheeky waltz.

Part Two of the Titan was titled "Commedia humana" (Human Comedy). It begins with "Gestrandet", a Totenmarsch inspired by an illustration of hunted animals following the cortege of a dead huntsman: the worldly order of power in reverse. Again, the usee of instruments Mahler himself would have known adds colour to this performance. The rhythms reference the folk tune Bruder Jakob: hence Mahler's comment that it should sound quaint "as if slaughtered by a bad orchestra". Ländler values again, with echoes of the motif "Auf der Straße steht ein Lindenbaum" from the song "Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz" with which Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen ends. The dark humour of this Dantesque "human comedy" comes to the fore in the last movement, an allegro furioso originally titled "Dall'Inferno". Such energy in this performance – proof that instruments of the right period can sound powerfully animated. Roth and Les Siècles perform with intense conviction. Each section of the orchestra sounds alert, aware of what's evolving in the music: the triumph of some heroic force of life, blasting away death and venality. Hence the term "Titan", refering to Jean Paul's Bildungsroman, where wisdom is won through fire, in search of higher purpose. 

Source: Anne Ozorio (

Musiques du silence – Federico Mompou, Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Henri Dutilleux, Alexander Scriabin, Frédéric Chopin, Toru Takemitsu, Claude Debussy, Enrique Granados

Guillaume Coppola, piano

Recorded 2018
Released on April 5, 2019 by Eloquentia

Builded around works by the pianist and composer Federico Mompou, this programme invites other composers who tried to express the return to basics, a stylistic purity, a form of asceticism and mysticism. The works are linked through the ages and styles, resonate with each other, and that creates a continuous journey renewed form of recital, as a work in itself. An incredible sound experience, almost hypnotic.

After five original and unanimously acclaimed CDs, Guillaume Coppola has now "confirmed his prominent place at the heart of the young generation" (Diapason). In addition to a verve and an expressive depth that make each of his performances keenly anticipated, his authenticity and simplicity have won the hearts of music-lovers.

His eclectic and eloquent discography – encompassing Liszt (2009), Granados (2012), Poulenc (2013, with baritone Marc Mauillon), Schubert (2014) and Brahms-Schubert (2016, four hands with Hervé Billaut) – has been enthusiastically welcomed by the world's press, with every release garnering the highest recognition: Diapason d'Or, ffff from Télérama, Selection from Le Monde, Les Echos, the Académie Charles Cros, five stars from BBC Music Magazine, "Maestro" from Pianiste, four stars from Classica, four stars from Pianist and so on.

To date, he has performed in some 20 countries, appearing at prestigious European venues such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Prague Rudolfinum, the Liège Philharmonie, the Reduta in Bratislava and the Liepaja International Piano Stars Festival, as well as in Asia and South America. In France too, of course: at the Musée d'Orsay, the Salle Pleyel, the Piano Festival of La Roque-d'Anthéron, the Folle Journée de Nantes, the Festival de l'Orangerie de Sceaux, Piano aux Jacobins, the Paris Chopin Festival, Solistes aux Serres d'Auteuil, the Radio France Montpellier Festival, the Lille Piano Festival, the Rendez-vous de Rochebonne, the Nohant Festival, the Auditorium de Dijon, the Auditorium de Bordeaux, MC2 Grenoble, the Dinard Festival and more.

In addition to solo recitals and concertos – the latter with the Orchestre National de Montpellier, the Saint-Etienne Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre Victor Hugo Franche-Comté and the Orchestre Symphonique de l'Opéra de Toulon, under the baton of Arie van Beek, Enrique Mazzola, Laurent Campellone and Maxime Tortelier, among others – chamber music allows him to engage in fruitful collaboration with the violinists Régis Pasquier, Patrice Fontanarosa and Nicolas Dautricourt, the cellist Antoine Pierlot, the Voce, Parisii, Debussy and Alfama String Quartets.

While he occasionally plays four-hands and two-piano repertoire with Bruno Rigutto or David Bismuth, he has for several years performed as a duo with Hervé Billaut. Invited to accompany the baritone Marc Mauillon in a vocal recital, he also appears with the Latvian National Choir, Spirito/Britten Choir, the Bordeaux Opera Chorus under the direction of Māris Sirmais, Nicole Corti, Salvatore Caputo.

Guillaume is a generous musician who takes every opportunity to perform for audiences in prisons, hospitals and retirement homes. He participates in productions combining words and music, along with Marie-Christine Barrault, Didier Sandre, François Castang and Marie-Sophie Ferdane. His collaborations with composers have included giving the premieres of works by Marc Monnet (Paris, 2015), Isabel Pires (who dedicated a piece to him), Gao Ping, Steven Stucky and Sylvain Griotto.

Guillaume studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, in the class of Bruno Rigutto. Having taken first prizes in piano and chamber music, he proceeded to hone his skills in numerous masterclasses in France and abroad, with Jean-Claude Pennetier, Dmitri Bashkirov, Leon Fleisher and others. At the outset of his career, he received valuable support from sources such as the Radio France Génération Jeunes Interprètes programme, the Lions Clubs, the Cziffra and Bourgeois Foundations, and internationally from the Prix Déclic of the Institut Français and the New Masters on Tour series.

Next season, Guillaume will be performing in recital with his next CD Silence Music, a new 4 hands program with Hervé Billaut (Dreams from Spain), concerts with Spirito, will start a partnership with violist Arnaud Thorette and add Liszt's first concerto to his repertory.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23 | Sergei Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, Op.16

Haochen Zhang, piano

Lahti Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Dima Slobodeniouk

Recorded January 2018 (Tchaikovsky) & March 2018 (Prokofiev) at the Sibelius Hall, Lahti, Finland
Released on July 5, 2019, by BIS

This is not an obvious concerto coupling; but in fact there are at least three others, two of them quite recent: Rana and Pappano (Warner Classics, 12/15), Gerstein and Gaffigan (Myrios, 2/15); from the past, there is Joselson and Ormandy (Sony). Even so, do we really need another Tchaikovsky First Concerto on disc with no fewer than 447 available on different current CDs? Well, the answer in this instance is an enthusiastic "yes".

Haochen Zhang won the gold medal at the Van Cliburn a decade ago. He has yet to make it as a headliner internationally but listening to his way with this old warhorse left me in no doubt that here is an artist of rare talent. Listen to the way he handles the opening pages – those chords above the stave on the third beat with their top F naturals, E flats and A flats ring out emphatically, those that follow are extravagantly arpeggiated, and his phrasing of the solo and cadenza before the return of the opening theme is not just (the usual) empty bravura but thoughtfully shaped as though part of a conversation. In short, Zhang tells the introduction in such a way that you cannot wait to hear the rest of the story. Even if you instinctively shy away from yet another Tchaikovsky First, I think this performance will come as a refreshing surprise. The fast passagework in the central movement and the finale is thrillingly light and swift, and it is only a slight lack of weight in the final pages that, for me, falls short.

The Prokofiev, which precedes it, will do nothing to lessen the growing popularity of this extraordinary work. Again, it is Zhang's articulation and phrasing, precision and power that merit the highest praise. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra and Dimo Slobodeniouk provide spirited support and offer formidable competition even to the incredible Yuja Wang / Gustavo Dudamel live performance in Caracas (DG, 2/14) – just listen to the way Zhang and Slobodeniouk present the peroration of the first movement. Spine-tingling. And all credit to BIS producer Marion Schwebel and engineer Christian Starke for the vivid sound picture. Like many of BIS's recent releases, the disc's sleeve is made of material from sustainable forest management, soy ink, eco-friendly glue and water-based varnish, and is easy to recycle: no plastic is used. Other labels take note. Another tick. In fact, full marks all round.

Source: Jeremy Nicholas (

In a new, pristine recording from BIS, pianist Haochen Zhang takes a big step in his career, presenting on record Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto and Prokofiev's Second. For Zhang, it is his first studio recording of a concerto; previously, after winning the top spot at the prestigious Van Cliburn competition in 2009, he had only recorded a set of intimate solo works, also for BIS. The album showcases many strengths of both soloist and orchestra, but also shows that they still have room to grow.

Zhang possesses a virtuosic technique (his winning repertoire in the 2009 Van Cliburn competition included Petrushka and Gaspard de la Nuit), and here both concertos give him ample opportunity to showcase it. In two striking segments of the Prokofiev, Zhang uses his mastery to profess an interpretation of the concerto that few can credibly attempt: cold, futurist minimalism. This is not Steve Reich's minimalism. It is a minimization of romantic gestures and of warm colors. The first of those two segments is the "Moto-Perpetuo" scherzo. Zhang's playing is simply unforgiving. A second such segment comes at the opening of the concerto's finale; Zhang here is, simply put, vicious, and the results are chilling.

There are, however, moments where this version of the Prokofiev is less effective. In the opening, marked "Narrante", the phrases and rubatti are jolted and overly calculated. It feels like a glossy, new paint job of an old story, rather than a completely novel "narration". That movement's cadenza is tense and indeed "colossal" where Prokofiev indicates it, but it could have been even more prodigious, with proper space for the music to breathe within and between phrases. Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and Yundi Li both give more convincing (if traditionally late-Romantic) accounts of the opening and the cadenza.

In the Tchaikovsky, Zhang again gives a technically thrilling, if occasionally emotionally removed performance. Comparisons with other stand-out, recent recordings of the piece are instructive. For instance, at the main, dotted-rhythm theme of the first movement, Zhang's playing is polished and incisive but lacks color compared with, say, Beatrice Rana. When Rana plays this theme, there are three distinct colors: the dance-like phrase, the warmer major-third "commentaries" (as Barenboim might call them), and the upper-register flourishes. The colors are created by changing front and back-end articulations, and with very subtle modulations of the pulse. Zhang's playing is cooler, with the slightest shifting of a pulse. Throughout the first movement, this leaves the performance more emotionally detached than one might expect for Tchaikovsky.

A similar comparison could be made in the Andantino, this time to Denis Kozhukin's recent version of the concerto. Kozhukin uses a whole array of sounds in this movement, starting off straight and present, transitioning to a lighter, fluid touch when he accompanies the celli, oboe, and clarinet. Zhang remains monochromatic throughout the opening, wielding a particularly pointy staccato. Tchaikovsky does indeed indicate "Sempre Staccato" when the soloist accompanies the orchestra, but Kozhukin's staccato is perfectly convincing while managing to be warm as well.

It is in the Tchaikovsky's up-tempo sections, the prestissimo section of the Andantino and the concerto's finale, that Zhang's abilities shine. He plays with momentum, at once graceful and forceful, and his reading of the rondo is quite astounding. The recurring theme is spritely and engaging, if one can put aside the disorienting rhythmic stereotypy. The second theme flows wonderfully, and the final moments are exciting, leaving one generally in awe.

Source: Jonah Pearl (

Jean Sibelius: Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op. 39, & En saga, Op.9

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Conductor: Santtu-Matias Rouvali

Recorded May 28 - June 1, 2018, Gothenburg Concert Hall, Sweden
Released on January 18, 2019 by Alpha Classics

January 2019 is Sibelius Symphony month. I am much looking forward to Paavo Järvi's complete cycle from Paris for Sony  and also publishing Ateş Orga's review and Edward Clark's interview with the conductor – and, meanwhile, Santtu-Matias Rouvali (a Finn in Sweden) begins a Symphony and Symphonic Poem survey (to include Kullervo, I wonder?) from Gothenburg for Alpha.

I started with En Saga (as revised), an immediately gripping account, full of atmosphere and story-telling, Rouvali attentive to dynamics and note-values and the Gothenburg musicians honed and responsive, and the recorded sound is excellent, vivid and tangible, yet set naturally in a recognisable and unencumbered (if slightly too bright) acoustic. Rouvali builds the narrative (unstated by Sibelius, if full of potential for the imagination) by stealth, relishing the invention and colours (not least from the threatening bass drum) without overstating either and equally without denuding scenic promise. Forward momentum laced with poise and much expression is the hallmark, the latter quality to the fore during the still-centre of the piece  sensitive solo strings – and at the close (following a thrilling flare-up, with notable brass hairpins electrifying the air) during which Urban Claesson's clarinet musing is a model of poeticism as the music fades into the ghostly ether.

Symphony No.1 is no-less-fine in terms of Rouvali's commitment to it, opening with subdued if ominous timpani leaving room for (another) clarinet solo, lamenting this time, to cue a volatile reading, with passionate sweep to conjure a storm-tossed landscape but with no lack of light and shade or communicative leeway, if occasionally pulling the music out of shape, a lingering here, a broadening there, and a tendency to exaggerate the theatre of it all (the brass can now be a touch too heady).

A silent studio this may be (in terms of high production values, no noises-off) but this is not an empty orchestra, Gothenburg giving its all for a conductor who has much fervour for this music, as if an audience was present, even if the slow movement is a little too restless (some lovely tracery along the way though), for Rouvali is more likely to take time to enjoy the view. He comes into his own in the Scherzo, deliberately paced and ruggedly delineated (terrific hard-stick timpani), the Trio a languorous interlude, and the highlight is the Finale, Quasi una fantasia (not that those three words appear anywhere in Alpha's annotation), suiting Rouvali's penchant for drama and expansiveness: he makes us wait for those ultimate pizzicatos.

If a little wearing at times, and to a certain extent predictable as to interpretative choices, this first volume – one that compels if not to clear the shelves of existing versions – heralds what should be a distinctive Sibelius series, hopefully cloth being cut to suit each work. If we gave half-stars, this is three-and-a-half. I am being cautious.

Source: Colin Anderson (

With so much exceptional competition in the catalogue, it's a brave conductor who would embark on a new cycle of Sibelius's symphonies. New kid on the block Santtu-Matias Rouvali, however, is no ordinary conductor: known for his podium antics as much as for his probing musicianship, the big-haired Finn, still only in his mid-thirties, has recently taken over from Gustavo Dudamel as music director of the illustrious Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, and is also principal guest conductor of London's Philharmonia Orchestra. Until now his recordings have been mainly as accompanist in concertos, but for his first major outing with the Gothenburg orchestra on the Alpha label he pairs Sibelius's First Symphony with the early tone poem En saga, and the results are hugely impressive.

The Gothenburg Symphony has a long pedigree in this music going back to the days of Sibelius himself, and their playing throughout is immensely assured. Coupled with that is Rouvali's incredible attention to colour and textural detail. He is also the same age as Sibelius was when he completed the First Symphony in 1899, and this performance has all the vitality of youth combined with a natural feel for the harmonic pedals that underpin the music's progress. From the beautifully intoned opening clarinet theme (superbly played by principal clarinet Urban Claesson), through the animated Allegro energico to the growling close, the first movement is grippingly intense, while the second movement Andante produces some glorious sounds, not least the string choirs' bracing transformation of the main theme at 1'59'' and its exquisite follow-up.

The punchy Scherzo has an almost Mediterranean bounce and flair to it, as well as a Brucknerian sense of momentum, opening up to a magnificently Sibelian trio section with noble horns and lovingly intoned woodwind. But it is in the sprawling Finale that Rouvali really proves his mettle, drawing together the music's disparate strands to defy any criticism of the movement's structure and imbuing it with a profound sense of inevitability. The scurrying Allegro sections are superbly articulated without sacrificing any sense of excitement, while the framing Andante music has a noble depth to it, crowned by some truly splendid trumpet playing. This whole performances oozes class and character, providing further proof that the Gothenburg Symphony is one of the great Sibelius orchestras and, recorded in dazzling stereo, rivalling even the much-lauded Osmo Vänskä performances on BIS (in surround sound).

Most conductors pair the First with another of Sibelius's symphonies, but Rouvali keeps the focus here firmly on beginnings with a remarkably compelling account of En saga in its customary revised version of 1902. There's nothing normal about this performance, though, for it brings out layers of textural detail seldom heard even in the recording studio, but with an innate understanding of the work's unstated but palpable "programme". Indeed, it has a natural storyteller's vividness, with an epic arc but relishing the individual episodes, from rapt introspection to exuberant action. Both collectively and individually the Gothenburg players completely enter this world of unspecified legend to create a powerful sense of engagement that lasts long after the final bars have died away, completely justifying the decision to place this work last on the disc.

If future releases in the cycle live up to this first instalment, it will certainly be one to watch and to return to with relish. Documentation and recording are first class, and Rouvali's "solo" debut is definitely one to remember.


Carl Maria von Weber: Oberon

Libretto by James Robinson Planché

Clemens Kerschbaumer (Oberon), tenor
Mirko Roschkowski (Hüon von Bordeaux), tenor
Dorothea Maria Marx (Rezia), soprano
Grga Peroš (Scherasmin), baritone
Marie Seidler (Fatime), mezzo-soprano
Dmitry Egorov (Puck), countertenor
Roman Kurtz, narrator

Chor und Extrachor des Stadttheaters Giessen
Choral Conductor: Jan Hoffmann

Philharmonisches Orchester Giessen
Conductor: Michael Hofstetter

Recorded Live December 2016 and January 2017, at Stadttheater Gießen, Germany
Released on July 12, 2019 by Oehms Classics

For the specific atmosphere of Oberon, Michael Hofstetter found it crucial that the performance was played on the period instruments Weber composed for. In Giessen, he worked with four natural horns, natural trumpets, finely tuned trombones and not least flutes made of wood instead of metal. This produced an inexhaustible wealth of acoustic colors, enabling us to sensually experience what might really be meant by the concept of "German Romanticism" on the musical level.

Michael Hofstetter conducts at many well known opera houses, orchestras and festivals, include the Bavarian, the Hamburg, the Hanover and the Stuttgart State Operas, Theater an der Wien, the Royal Opera Copenhagen, the Welsh National Opera, the English National Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, the Canadian Opera Company Toronto and many others. Future engagements will see him again at the International Handel Festival in Halle, with Orchestre national d'Île-de-France in Paris and at the International Gluck Festival Nuremberg.


Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61 | Jean Sibelius: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47

Christian Tetzlaff, violin

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Conductor: Robin Ticciati

Recorded on October 30-31, 2018, at Großer Sendesaal, Haus des Rundfunks Berlin (Sibelius), and on November 16-17, 2018, at Philharmonie Berlin (Beethoven)
Released on September 13, 2019 by Ondine

What we have here is by my calculations Christian Tetzlaff's third recording of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, the first two under Michael Gielen and David Zinman respectively. Having reviewed the latter in these pages back in June 2006, I noted then that "the main stumbling-block on so many rival recordings of this work is a sort of romantic reverence, a trend challenged by Zehetmair, Kremer and others. For all its many moments of profound repose, Beethoven's Violin Concerto is a forthright, heroic piece, with boldly militaristic first movement tutti and a rollicking finale which Tetzlaff invests with numerous added colours. Following on the heels of Zehetmair, Kremer and Schneiderhan, [he] performs the violin version of the cadenza that Beethoven wrote for his piano transcription of the work, a playful excursion and a snug fit for his overall interpretation". This choice of cadenza has apparently been Tetzlaff's preferred option from the age of 15.

Little has changed during the intervening years, at least in principle. Listening to Tetzlaff flying side-saddle through the Concerto last November (when this superbly engineered recording was made at Berlin's Philharmonie), often with the utmost agility, reminded me that at the work's premiere the composer's violinist colleague Franz Clement – who was sight-reading Beethoven's hastily finished solo part – is said, by some, "to have interrupted the concerto between the first and second movements with a solo composition of his own, played on one string of the violin held upside down". Now do hear me out on this point. Tetzlaff may at times excitedly rushes his fences, but in collaboration with Robin Ticciati and his alert Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, he transforms aspects of what so many have treated as a sort of Holy Grail (ie loftily reverential) into a beer tankard, the sense of unhinged inebriation gaining most froth in the outer movements' playful cadenzas, which run wild in the first movement and ratchet up extra excitement for the finale. In fact, I don't think I've ever heard a more excitable account of that closing Rondo. Here, as Tetzlaff himself says in a fascinating booklet interview, "the seriousness or solemnity sometimes surrounding the work is [also] completely suspended". Of course, viewed as a whole the Concerto still emerges as the mighty edifice that it is, but it's good to have a dose of typically Beethovenian rough-and-tumble thrown in as ballast.

The first movement's serene central section (played in tempo) allows for a welcome spot of repose and elsewhere Tetzlaff's sweet, delicately spun tone contrasts with, or should I say complements, Ticciati's assertive, occasionally bullish accompaniment. The Larghetto is beautifully done, its effect underlined through the sheer energy and character of the outer movements. There's never any doubt that what you're listening to is a real concerto, a battle of wills, more in line with Zehetmair and Brüggen (who use Wolfgang Schneiderhan's cadenza with timpani) or Kremer and Harnoncourt (a cadenza incorporating piano) than with the likes of Perlman, Zukerman or Kennedy. Who knows: maybe this is roughly what Beethoven originally had in mind? It's possible, even probable. One thing's for sure: never before has this indelible masterpiece sounded more like a profound precursor of Paganini.

If Beethoven's Concerto emerges as uncompromisingly provocative, Tetzlaff's Sibelius also errs on the side of danger. As risk-taking performances go, this one will have you clinging to the sides of your seat. Comparing it with his Virgin recording with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard is especially instructive: in the finale's opening, the ever-attentive Ticciati follows Sibelius' wishes by cueing a gradual diminuendo before Tetzlaff enters, whereas Dausgaard carries on pounding at full throttle. Then again, in the passage leading to the second subject (from around 0'44"), under Ticciati Tetzlaff sounds as if he's clinging on for dear life. Sibelius throws down the gauntlet by requesting a very fast tempo and Tetzlaff rises to the challenge. I shan't pretend that the effect is entirely comfortable (the Dausgaard option sounds marginally safer) but it’s undeniably exciting. The Concerto's opening is candidly emotional, with imaginatively deployed varieties of attack (a Tetzlaff speciality) and Ticciati again engaging his soloist with the utmost intensity, lunging fearlessly at Sibelius' dynamic writing, whether the deafening growl at 7'07" or the movement's fiercely driven close. As with the Beethoven, Tetzlaff is at his lyrical best in the Adagio. Both performances sidestep interpretative convention without either offending or displacing their finest rivals. In many respects, a real knock-out.

Source: Rob Cowan (

Sergei Rachmaninov: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3

Daniil Trifonov, piano

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Recorded in Philadelphia, Kimmel Center, Verizon Hall, November 2016 (Concerto No.1), April 2018 (Concerto No.3, live recording), in Berlin, Philharmonie, February 2, 2019 (The Silver Sleigh Bells, live recording), and at Princeton University, Alexander Hall, Richardson Auditorium, January 1, 2019 (Vocalise)
Released on October 11, 2019 by Deutsche Grammophon

The album, set for international release in October 2019, unites the acclaimed Russian-born artist's account of Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto, one of the most difficult and demanding in the repertoire, with his searing interpretation of the composer's First Piano Concerto. It also includes Trifonov's solo piano transcription of Rachmaninov's "The Silver Sleigh Bells" and his arrangement of the evergreen Vocalise. Eighty years ago, Rachmaninov himself created benchmark recordings of these two concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now both works occupy the heart of Trifonov's latest Deutsche Grammophon release, the second in his series of the composer's piano concertos with the Philadelphia Orchestra and its Music Director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Reflections on the musician's itinerant life and the historic forces that have uprooted countless creative artists run through the Rachmaninov journey undertaken by Daniil Trifonov. His two-disc Destination Rachmaninov project, he explains, bridges the gap in time and space between Rachmaninov's early years in late Tsarist Russia and his life in exile after the Russian Revolution.

"The Third Piano Concerto is a unique example of one unending melody", Trifonov observes, "one continuous flow of musical consciousness – a single, rhapsodic journey. Above all, there is nothing banal in the expression. Even in its heights of lyricism or virtuosity, every note is devoted to a higher purpose". That purpose, Trifonov suggests, involves nothing less than what he calls "a spiritual probing of the mysteries of the soul".

It takes a performer in total command of the Third Piano Concerto's mighty technical challenges to penetrate deep beneath its surface. Daniil Trifonov's interpretation treats virtuosity not as an end in itself but as the means to propel a fearless spiritual adventure. The work, the pianist concludes, "has a unique kind of emotion – a solemn intimacy. It is like a prayer – the composer's inner conversation with himself, and with God".

Trifonov draws further comparisons with prayer when he talks of Rachmaninov's Vocalise. The piece, written in 1912 as a wordless song for high voice and piano, proved so popular that it was soon arranged by the composer for soprano and orchestra. Countless other arrangements have followed since for everything from jazz ensemble to solo theremin. "It's so pure and sincere, and there's a simplicity in it that is very touching", notes Trifonov. "So it feels almost like a prayer, and there is this meditativeness that is perhaps so typical of Rachmaninov's music."

Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto is an early work completed soon after the composer's graduation from the Moscow Conservatory in 1891. The score, Trifonov says, is the work of someone who had yet to experience tragedy. Its generous, open-hearted spirit survived the revisions Rachmaninov made in November 1917 during the turbulent early days of the Russian Revolution and served as a reminder of youthful optimism throughout his life. "It connected him with memories of home, his roots – of happier times."

Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra have accompanied Daniil Trifonov throughout his journey with Rachmaninov. "From the first moment we worked together on Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini", the pianist recalls, "I realised how much respect these musicians have for Rachmaninov's music and how much knowledge they have of his idiom. To me, it was a great idea to record all his concerti with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick for Deutsche Grammophon". Nézet-Séguin underlines the point: "There's something in the air. It's difficult to explain, but the Philadelphia players are blessed with a mixture of tradition, pride, understanding and value."


Franz Liszt: Mazeppa (Symphonic Poem No.6, S.100) & Sardanapalo (unfinished opera, S.687)

Joyce El-Khoury, soprano
Airam Hernández, tenor
Oleksandr Pushniak, baritone

Opera Chorus Nationaltheater Weimar
Staatskapelle Weimar
Conductor: Kirill Karabits

Recorded August 17-20, 2018, Congress Centrum Neue Weimarhalle
Released on February 8, 2019 by Audite

An immensely important issue, this is the first recording of the performing edition by British musicologist David Trippett of Sardanapalo, the only projected opera by the mature Liszt of which substantial material survives. Its genesis remains to some extent shrouded in mystery. Byron's 1821 play Sardanapalus, about the sensualist Assyrian king who immolated himself and his mistress after failing to quell an insurrection, was among the subjects that Liszt was contemplating, as early as 1842, to mark his return to opera, his only previous work in the genre being the juvenile Don Sanche of 1825. Why he chose Sardanapalo over, among others, Byron's Corsair and an opera about Spartacus, is seemingly unknown. We also have scant information about Sardanapalo's librettist, an unnamed Italian poet suggested by the Princess Cristina Belgiojoso after attempts failed to procure a text from the French playwright Félicien Mallefille. Nor has the full libretto survived: the only extant portions are those to be found in the manuscript.

Liszt seemingly began composition early in 1850 and was still working on the score in the winter of 1851-1852. At some point shortly afterwards, however, he abandoned the opera, probably because his librettist was either unable or unwilling to undertake revisions to the second and third acts. The manuscript itself, meanwhile, though familiar to Liszt scholars, was long deemed too fragmentary for reconstruction. Trippett's painstaking research, however, revealed that in essence what we possess is a draft piano-vocal score of the complete first act, albeit with some key signatures omitted and a handful of gaps in the accompaniment; there are also a number of cues for orchestration, which Liszt apparently intended to entrust to his assistant Joachim Raff. Trippett consequently decided there was "just sufficient" to undertake a performing version, and his edition caused something of a stir when it was first heard in Weimar last August, conducted by Kirill Karabits, with the cast we have here.

It is indeed extraordinary and in some respects unique. Commentators familiar with the manuscript have often dubbed it "Meyerbeerian". The opera might better, however, be described as through-composed bel canto, at times echoing Bellini, at others pre-empting 1860s Verdi (Forza in particular comes to mind), though the melodic contours and chromatic harmony are unmistakably Liszt's own. Dramatically straightforward and uncluttered, it falls into four distinct sections: an introductory chorus for Sardanapalo's many concubines; a colossal scena for Mirra, the king's slave-girl mistress; a love duet for the central couple; and a final trio in which Mirra and the Chaldean soothsayer Beleso attempt to persuade the unwilling king to go into battle after news of the insurrection breaks. Though the opening chorus repeats its material once too often, the rest of the act is beautifully shaped, while Liszt's fluid treatment of bel canto structures – blurring boundaries between recitative, aria and arioso in a quest for psychological veracity – reveals an assured musical dramatist at work.

He makes no concessions to his singers, though, and his vocal writing is taxing in the extreme. Joyce El Khoury is pushed almost to her limits in Mirra's scena, with its big declamatory recitatives, interrupted cavatina (it fragments as mounting desire for her captor obliterates memories of a life once lived in freedom) and vast closing cabaletta. Her dramatic commitment is never in doubt, though, and there's a ravishing passage later on when she pleads with the king to put aside his aversion to military conflict, her voice soaring sensually and ecstatically over rippling harp arpeggios. Airam Hernández sounds noble and ardent in the title-role, wooing El Khoury with fierce insistence and responding to Oleksandr Pushniak's stentorian Beleso with assertive dignity. The choral singing is consistently strong, the playing terrific, and Karabits conducts with extraordinary passion. Trippett has carefully modelled his orchestration on Liszt's works of the early 1850s, and it sounds unquestionably authentic when placed beside the exhilarating performance of Mazeppa that forms its companion piece. Throughout there's a real sense of excitement at the discovery and restoration of a fine work by one of the most inventive of composers. You end up wishing that Liszt had somehow incorporated operatic composition into his extraordinary career, and wondering what the course of musical history might have been if he had.

Source: Tim Ashley (Gramophone)

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites

Alexandra Papastefanou, piano

Recorded at Dimitris Mitropoulos Hall, Megaron, Athens, March 25 and April 24, 2019

Released on November 15, 2019 by First Hand Records

The second album for FHR by the award-winning, leading interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach on piano, Alexandra Papastefanou. Here, we are presented with another classic set of keyboard works by the composer, the French Suites.

Papastefanou, Greece's leading pianist, is now regarded worldwide as a leading exponent of Bach on the piano. Her previous recording for FHR (The Well-Tempered Clavier, 2018), did incredibly well with the music press and critics (MusicWeb International Recording of the Month, The Union of Greek Theatre and Music Critics Award: Best Recording of 2018, 5 stars from BBC Music Magazine).

On listening to Alexandra's Well-Tempered Clavier recording, the great pianist Alfred Brendel commented: "I find Papastefanou's Bach riveting. This is Bach playing on a high level – full of life, controlled in all strands of the music, pianistically immaculate, and highly personal. Here is a Bach player who has lived a lifetime with this music".

Amongst the other works featured on the album is the Keyboard Sonata, BWV 964, Bach's own transcription for keyboard of the Sonata in A minor, BWV 1003 for Solo Violin. This is rarely recorded on the piano, so it's a welcome addition to the catalogue.


The first cd comprises French Suites 1-4 while the second includes two arrangements for keyboard of sonatas for solo violin. Alexandra Papastefanou plays a modern Steinway and there is no attempt to produce anything other than a crisp contemporary sound. This is actually quite refreshing when set against many versions on original instruments, a wide variety of keyboards and temperaments. It is strangely old-fashioned – the sort of sound I grew up with – but if anything this makes it all the more compelling. I particularly enjoy the balance she brings to the various voices and the clarity of the inter-play.


Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonatas for Cello and Piano

Leonard Elschenbroich, cello
Alexei Grynyuk, piano

Recorded January 7, 8, 10 & 11, and April 18 & 20, 2017 at Deutschlandfunk
Released on May 3, 2019 by Onyx Classics

There's little in Beethoven's output that's undervalued but I have the sense that the cello sonatas don't quite get the respect they deserve. The pair of Op.5 show the young composer flexing his creative muscles in vast sonata structures that teem with ideas and incident; Op.69 is a veritable melodic feast; and Op.102's two are wondrously weird.

In Leonard Elschenbroich and Alexei Grynyuk's hands, these sonatas' staggering invention is impossible to ignore. The musicians' success comes, at least in part, from scrupulous attention to the composer's markings in matters of dynamics and articulation. Listen to the expectant hush with which they play the beginning of Op.5 No.1 – and note, too, how Elschenbroich sneaks into a crescendo so it seems to come out of nowhere. Or turn to the opening Andante of Op.102 No.1, rendered with such rapt yearning that it sounds as if it's being dreamily improvised.

Dynamic contrasts are starkly defined throughout, further sharpening musical characterisations. They wring every last ounce of drama from the central Allegro molto of Op.5 No.2, for example, and although they play both repeats, there's no slackening of tension or feeling of protraction. I was particularly riveted by the cellist's fervid phrasing in the repeat of the development section (at 9'05"), where he digs in even deeper than the first time around. His sound isn't especially plummy – there's a slight (and, I think, endearing) nasal quality to it – but his legato is seamless and he's not shy about roughing up his tone when called for, as in the two Trios of Op.69's Scherzo.

Indeed, Elschenbroich and Grynyuk find a wealth of textural variety in these sonatas. Grynyuk's touch can be astonishingly delicate and is unfailingly articulate. I love the rhythmic buoyancy both musicians bring to the rondos of Op.5 No.2 and Op.69 – whose ebullience borders on the giddy – and by Op.102 No.2's concluding Allegro fugato, where they step lightly and with unfailing grace through exceptionally intricate polyphony.

They can drive the music hard in fast movements, although their playing always breathes naturally. In a few places, I feel the breaths between thematic sections are held a hair too long. And in the slender slow introduction to Op.69's finale their phrasing feels a bit fussy when heard alongside, say, Rostropovich and Richter (Philips, 4/95).

Unlike many other recordings of the complete sonatas, Elschenbroich and Grynyuk eschew the sets of variations, offering instead a delightful account of the Horn Sonata in an arrangement likely made by the composer himself. The balance between the instruments ever so slightly favours the piano, and in some forte passages I wish the cello had greater presence. But this is a very minor complaint in the face of such superb music-making.

Source: Andrew Farach-Colton (

1939 – William Walton: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B minor | Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Concerto funèbre (Funereal Concerto) for Violin and String Orchestra | Béla Bartók: Violin Concerto No.2 in B major

Fabiola Kim, violin

Münchner Symphoniker

Conductor: Kevin John Edusei

Recorded November 5-8, 2018 (Walton, Bartók) and January 23-24, 2019 (Hartmann) at Bavaria Musikstudios Munich
Released on June 21, 2019 by Solo Musica

The Korean-American violinist Fabiola Kim has earned herself an excellent reputation far beyond her native regions. While she has long been regarded as one of the strongest talents of her young generation in the United States with appearances at Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Festival – the New York Times celebrates her as "a brilliant soloist... with extraordinary precision and luminosity" – she has also been able to amaze critics and audiences on numerous European concert stages.

With 1939 now her impressive debut appears, whose program not only demands tremendous musicality, but also historical awareness and sensitivity. Under the baton of Kevin John Edusei, she has recorded with the Munich Symphony Orchestra violin concertos by Walton, Hartmann and Bartók, all of which were written in the year that provides the title – works by composers with very different styles and musical spheres of their own. The concerts reveal in the music and their spiritual attitude both closeness and distance to the historical turning point of 1939 – before the great global conflagration.

Béla Bartók, who with his folkloristic music strived for nothing less than a "brotherhood of peoples", had already suffered under the rapprochements of the Hungarian right-wing government to the Nazi regime and was also directly affected by the political development at the latest with the annexation of Austria, where his publishing house Universal Edition was located. Torn between emigration and remaining in his homeland, Bartók initially escaped into work. He wrote his 2nd Violin Concerto for his befriended violinist Zoltán Székely. It represents a wonderful compromise between Bartók's modern imagination and the client's desire for a "classical" concert.

Karl Amadeus Hartmann, a native of Munich, was most directly affected by the political darkening in Germany: "The standstill in creative activity was accompanied by the fear of what was to come, the unimaginable, the rule of the demon had come to pass, seemingly established for the duration". Hartmann remained in Germany and chose inner emigration. The events of 1939 represent the starting point of his Concerto funèbre, which he conceived as funeral music and accusation against the tyranny of the National Socialists: "This period indicates the fundamental character of my piece and the background to it. The dire outlook at that time for all that war spiritual was to be challenged by an expression of confidence in the two chorales at the beginning and at the end".

The situation was quite different with the creation of Walton's Violin Concerto, which was composed at that time in Italy and the USA far from the threat of war. After Walton had flirted with modern trends in the 1920s and had risen to become the "enfant terrible" of the English avant-garde, he followed in later works a more subtle tone a more subtle tone of lyrical quality in the neo-Romantic style, as he does in the Violin Concerto. He had received the commission for the composition from none other than Jascha Heifetz, who premiered the work in Cleveland in December 1939 with great success – thus Walton was now also affected by the political events, unable to attend the premiere of his work after the outbreak of World War II.


John Tavener: The Protecting Veil

Matthew Barley, cello
Sinfonietta Riga

Recorded July 2 & 3, 2018 at The Anglican Church, Riga, Latvia
Released on June14, 2019 by Signum Records

This disc begins with a beautiful reading by Olwyn Fouéré of Yeats's heartbreaking "The Cloths of Heaven", a poem Tavener set as part of his remarkable and rarely performed song-cycle To a Child Dancing in the Wind (1983), and then suddenly we are in the breathtaking rhapsody that is The Protecting Veil. Matthew Barley has gone to considerable trouble to construct this programme, centred on his own magnificent performance of a work whose premiere at the 1989 Proms brought Tavener back to worldwide fame, and it is an approach that brings ample rewards.

Remarkably, Barley directs the Sinfonietta Riga himself, from the cello, and the sense of complicity is very much a hallmark of this performance. When I first saw the score of this work, when the composer showed it to me in 1988, worrying that it was "too romantic", I could never have imagined that it would be possible to arrive at a performance of comparable intimacy, so grand did its gestures seem. But Barley has absolutely understood that intimacy is what underlies this piece: it is certainly on a large scale but it is also a kind of personal dialogue between the composer and the life of the Mother of God. Barley's cello sings and the orchestra functions perfectly as the "cosmic echo chamber" the composer desired.

After another reading by Fouéré, of Yeats's "The Mother of God", an arrangement by Barley (including some improvised solo cello music) of Tavener's Mother and Child is heard, which I have come to prefer to the original version for choir, organ and gong. A poem by Fritjof Schuon, whose work meant so much to Tavener later in his life, follows, read by Julie Christie, and the disc closes with Barley's arrangement for cello and tabla of a work by Sultan Khan, an appropriate acknowledgement of Tavener's lifelong interest in the music of India.

Even if you have other recordings of The Protecting Veil, I recommend this utterly beautiful and originally framed version unreservedly.

Source: Ivan Moody (

Gustav Mahler: Symphony No.3 in D minor

Sara Mingardo, contralto

Women's choir of Schola Heidelberg
Young singers of the Kölner Dom
Gürzenich-Orchester Köln
Conductor: François-Xavier Roth

Recorded October 2018, Kölner Philharmonie

Released on February 8, 2019 by Harmonia mundi

From the powerful opening statement salvo by 8 French horns, to the incisive declamations by the solo principal trombonist, to the seismic tremors induced by the ranks of percussion instruments in the first movement, to the graceful interplay between woodwinds and strings in the second, to the beautifully alluring and deceptive (turns out to be a hunting horn) solo horn passages in the third, to the appropriately grim and heartfelt singing by contralto Sara Mingardo in the fourth, to the joyous bimm bamms by the children's choir in the fifth, to the highly emotional, quasi-hymnic extended crescendo that builds to celestial proportions that is the final movement, all aspects of the "Mahler" sound are laid bare in this intense account, and presented with demonstration quality engineering. Add to all this the number of finer expressive details benefitting from conductor François-Xavier Roth's focus along the way and I could go on and on...

Source: Jean-Yves Duperron (

Roth and the Cologne orchestra have a knack of making the most familiar Mahler sound new, with vivid extremes of colour and dynamics. Hearing the prodigious Third makes me marvel afresh at it, and at the stupidity of critics who were deaf to its greatness. — Sunday Times

Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs / Richard Wagner: Arias from Tannhäuser

Lise Davidsen, soprano

Philharmonia Orchestra
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen

Recorded 28 & 29 September and 6 & 7 October 2018 at Henry Wood Hall, London
Released on May 31, 2019, by Decca Classics

On her self-titled album, Lise Davidsen opens with two highly vivid arias from Wagner's "Tannhäuser". One is immediately plunged into a sound-world of highly charged and evocative emotion, which Davidsen depicts with effortless ease. The first, "Dich, teure Halle brims", is presented with boundless energy and vigor. In this first aria she demonstrates all the dramatic qualities and colors of her remarkable voice, but what is more exceptional here is the dexterity with which she can change the hues. This technically challenging aria is an impressive opener to a magnificent release.

In the second aria, "Allmächt'ge Jungfrau!", Davidsen shows another, more lyrical aspect of her remarkable voice. Here she shapes phrases with a sense of architecture, drawing out long melodic lines expressively and expansively. In both arias, the woodwind players of the Philharmonia Orchestra produce sonorous richness which serves to enhance the luminosity of Davidsen's sound.

The remainder of the album is dedicated to Richard Strauss. "Es gibt ein Reich" from "Ariadne Auf Naxos" (track 3) is a captivating aria, Davidsen taking the listener on a journey to view the afterlife, awarding us with an enchanting perspective to "Im Abendrot" which comes later in the album. Strauss' Four Songs Op.27 are presented at the heart of the program. The beauty and richness of Davidsen's voice draw all the sentiment out of these songs. "Morgen!", the most widely known of all the Strauss' songs other than his final set, is given a remarkably crisp and visionary rendition. Davidsen's tone takes on a very different shade, almost whispered at times, imperceptibly creating moments of peace.

The famous "Four Last Songs" closes this album. There are charm and sincerity to Davidsen's approach here, but it's the final song which makes this set stand out from others in the catalog. She treats each of the four songs as an individual entity, giving each one a different tone, emphasizing the contrasting characters and meanings of the texts. "Im Abendrot" is taken slower than many famed interpretations, including Renée Fleming and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, but not as expansive as Jesse Norman. The balance Davidsen strikes creates a gentle sense of motion with a level of transcendence. Salonen takes Davidsen's lead and phrases the orchestral passages with the same level of naturalness, avoiding making the textures of Strauss' orchestration sound too dense. The final bars have a tremendous sense of authority as the listener leaves this musical world for another.

It is not often that musical chemistry comes together like this; The natural bond between conductor, singer and orchestra is one of the many highlights which makes this recording so special. Every phrase of every piece is carefully considered, shaped impeccably with an intense musical understanding of where the music is heading. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra are the perfect accompanists to Davidsen; The conductor knows exactly how to control the orchestra, allowing it to come to the fore in their passages and to drop back when required, giving Davidsen ample opportunities to shine. Decca's engineers have captured the sound with clarity and precision, allowing this exceptional music-making to be savored.

Davidsen has considered this program thoroughly, and the result is a convincing musical journey. The transitions between pieces are seamless as the soprano takes the listener from the earthly and grounded to the spiritual and celestial. She understands the heart and soul of this repertoire and is able to perform it with masterful command and authority, extraordinarily giving insight on the passage of time. For those who are new to Wagner or Strauss, this recording would be an excellent introduction to the music. It would also be a welcome addition to any established library. Highly recommended.

Source: Leighton Jones (

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos, Sinfonias, Overture and Sonatas

Isabelle Faust, violin Jacobus Stainer (1658)
Bernhard Forck, anonymous violin, South Germany (1725)
Xenia Löffler, oboe and recorder
Jan Freiheit, cello
Raphael Alpermann, harpsichord

Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin

Bernhard Forck, concert-master

Recorded December 2017 and September 2018, Berlin, Teldex Studio Berlin
Released on March 15, 2019 by Harmonia mundi

Having already set down her accounts of the solo violin Sonatas and Partitas, as well as the accompanied Violin Sonatas with Krystian Bezuidenhout, Harmonia Mundi's star violinist Isabelle Faust now turns her attention to the concertos. This is repertoire she recorded some years ago for Hänssler Classics with the more "mainstream" accompaniment of Helmut Rilling and his Bach Collegium Stuttgart. This time, however, working with the superb period instrumentalists of the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, it's with bells on: not just the sheer quality of the playing, but the music itself. For, in addition to the usual fare of the two Violin Concertos in A minor and E major plus the D minor Concerto for two violins and the Concerto for oboe and violin, there's a veritable plethora of reconstructed concertos, cantata sinfonias and trio sonatas, even an orchestral suite in an unusual guise, all featuring notable concertante parts for solo violin. Two discs' worth of sparkling music, and generously priced to boot!

Proceedings kick off with the mighty D minor Concerto, BWV 1052, which survives as  a keyboard concerto and has long been a favourite with pianists and harpsichordists from Lipatti and Gould to Rousset and Staier. But, as Bach specialist Peter Wollny explains in his booklet notes, it has for some years been thought that the work originated in a lost violin concerto. Faust is far from being the first violinist to tackle this reconstruction (Szigeti and Ricci were among the earliest), but she is surely the most convincing, dashing off the virtuoso – and persuasively violinistic – figuration with tremendous flair and naturalness. Given the faultless intonation elsewhere on the album, the perceptible note of sourness introduced by soloist and orchestra in the slow movement seems a deliberate interpretative strategy, emphasising the mournful, lament-like Affekt of the music, and it certainly works a treat.

The other two concertos on CD 1 are a beautifully poised account of the E major Violin Concerto – outer movements pert, central Adagio wonderfully dreamy – and the well-known C minor Concerto for oboe and violin, itself a reconstruction from a concerto for three harpsichords. Here Faust is partnered by oboist Xenia Löffler, and they make an excellent team, not least in the glorious interweaving lines of the Largo ovvero Adagio second movement, while they rise magnificently to the demands of the closing Allegro, which is taken here at quite a lick. Peppered in between these three concertos are two cantata sinfonias: the heart-stopping opening movement of Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis, BWV 21, and the dazzlingly expanded version of the first movement of Brandenburg Concerto No.3 (with added horns and oboes!) that opens Cantata BWV 174. For a complete change of scale there's also some chamber music: the Organ Trio Sonata in C major, BWV 529, rescored for two violins (Faust and Bernhard Forck, the AAM Berlin's concertmaster) and continuo, captivating in its intimacy.

On disc two, Löffler and Forck exchange roles, with Löffler now the trio sonata partner in a chamber transcription of the D minor Organ Trio, BWV 527 (with a slow movement that was later incorporated into the A minor "Triple" Concerto for flute, violin and harpsichord), and Forck playing second fiddle to Faust in the much-loved Concerto for two violins in D minor, BWV 1043, including a beautifully inflected account of the central Largo. The disc opens with the famous Orchestral Suite No.2, BWV 1067, transposed down from its normal B minor to A minor and with solo violin replacing the familiar flute. As a reconstruction, it's less plausible than the others included in this collection, for one misses the distinctive timbre that a wind instrument brings to the top line; but in the virtuoso passages (and above all in the concluding, racy Badinerie) Faust gives it her all, so that there's always plenty to enjoy. More convincing as a piece of reconstruction is a G minor version of the F minor Keyboard Concerto, BWV 1056, a brooding work that gains much from Faust's bright-toned playing and the ever-alert accompaniments of her colleagues. And it's the sweetness of tone that Faust coaxes from her 1658 Jacobus Steiner instrument that is the chief glory of the A minor Violin Concerto, BWV 1041. Too often turned into a dramatic, hard-edged showpiece, this masterpiece is here treated to a gentler touch that enhances its expressiveness and forms one of the undoubted highlights of the album. As throughout, Faust's ornamentation is tasteful and unintrusive, so that it well withstands the repeated listening her playing so readily invites.

Two more cantata sinfonias, the gentle opening movement from BWV 182 featuring recorder and violin, and the jaw-droppingly spectacular D major Sinfonia, BWV 1045, from an unknown lost work, scored for solo violin trumpets, oboes, timpani, strings and continuo, round off this splendid collection of "Violin Concertos Plus". Recorded at Berlin's Teldex Studio in a slightly boxy-sounding acoustic that favours the soloist(s) without undue prominence, and with unfailingly stylish playing from the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, this spellbinding album deserves to be on every Bach lovers shelf. Enthusiastically recommended to all and sundry!


The albums were chosen by the owner and blog editor of "Faces of Classical Music", Alexandros Arvanitakis.

More photos

See also

The best new classical albums: January 2020

The best new classical albums: December 2019

The best new classical albums: November 2019

The best new classical albums: October 2019

The best new classical albums: September 2019

The best new classical albums: August 2019

The best new classical albums: July 2019

The best new classical albums: June 2019

The best new classical albums: May 2019

The best new classical albums: April 2019

The best new classical albums: March 2019

The best new classical albums: February 2019

The best new classical albums: January 2019

The Faces of Classical Music Choose the 20 Best Albums of 2018