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The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings

Gramophone Wed 8th June 2016

Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Beethoven recordings available

The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings
The 50 greatest Beethoven recordings

Following the overwhelming popularity of our list of the 50 Greatest Mozart Recordings, we have now gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Beethoven's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from legendary performers like Artur Schnabel and Otto Klemperer to modern masters like Isabelle Faust and Riccardo Chailly. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental, vocal and opera. We have also included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe. The 'Buy Now' links take you to the relevant recording at the website of classical music retailer Presto Classical.

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

Teldec

The freshness of this set is remarkable. You do not have to listen far to be swept up by its spirit of renewal and discovery, and in Pierre-Laurent Aimard as soloist Nikolaus Harnoncourt has made an inspired choice. Theirs are not eccentric readings of these old warhorses – far from it. But they could be called idiosyncratic – from Harnoncourt would you have expected anything less? – and to the extent that the set gives a shock to received ideas it is challenging. It does not seek to banish all conventional wisdom about the pieces, but it has asked a lot of questions about them, as interpreters should, and I warm to it not only for the boldness of its answers but for finding so many of the right questions to ask.

These are modern performances which have acquired richness and some of their focus from curiosity about playing styles and sound production of the past. What can be deduced about the likely nature of mass, weight and orchestral perspectives and how the musical language was spoken from what is known of instruments and performance practices in Beethoven’s time? Harnoncourt offers some answers that will be familiar to admirers of his Teldec recording of the symphonies (11/91). He favours leaner string textures than the norm and gets his players in the excellent Chamber Orchestra of Europe to command a wide range of expressive weight and accent; this they do with an immediacy of effect that is striking. Yet there is a satisfying body to the string sound, too. From all the orchestral sections the playing is of the highest class – the woodwind and brass often pungent, the thwack of the timpani leathery and distinctive in tutti passages (and the player of them relishing the big solo moment after the cadenza in the first movement of the Concerto No 3 in C minor). The performances gain an edge from all this which has nothing to do with a ‘period’ stance but everything to do with what I take to be Harnoncourt’s objectives: to regain the freshness and force of what was once new, to recover the qualities of exhilaration and disturbance that these works possess.

I also like very much the way the playing seems to have recourse to eloquence without having to strive for it, and that is characteristic of Aimard’s contribution as well. Strong contrasts are explored and big moments encompassed as part of an unforced continuity in which nothing is hurried. Melodic values are sustained to the full, yet even when the playing appears at its most relaxed it is moving forward, alert to what may be around the next corner. The big moments do indeed stand out: one of them is the famous exchange of dramatic gestures between piano and orchestra in the development of the E flat Concerto’s first movement (at 10'55"); another the equally dramatic but very different exchange when the piano re-enters at the start of the development in the first movement of the G major Concerto (8'21"). At these junctures, conductor and pianist allow the gestures to disrupt the rhythmic continuity to a degree I don’t remember previously encountering. (And there is another instance at Aimard’s very first entry in the B flat Concerto.) Over the top? I think not, but risky maybe, and if you have strong views as to what the rubrics permit in Beethoven, or have swallowed a metronome, you may react strongly. For make no mistake, Aimard is as intrepid an explorer here as Harnoncourt – by conviction, I am sure, not simply by adoption. I find him personable and persuasive, as well as abundantly capable of firing up the orchestra to make things happen as much as they and the conductor inspire and set the scene for him.

Technically, he is superbly equipped. You notice this everywhere but perhaps especially in the finales, brimful of spontaneous touches and delight in their eventfulness and in the sheer pleasure of playing them. I need to single out the finale of the Emperor, which tingles with a continuously vital, constantly modulated dynamic life that it too rarely receives; so many players make it merely rousing. And among the first movements, I must mention that of the G major Concerto as a quite exceptional achievement, as I see it, for the way Harnoncourt and his soloist find space for the fullest characterisation of the lyricism and diversity of the solo part – Aimard begins almost as if improvising the opening statement, outside time – while integrating these qualities with the larger scheme. It is the most complex movement in the concertos and I cannot remember when I enjoyed a version of it at once so directional and free as a bird.

The first movement of the E flat Concerto is nearly as good, lacking only the all-seeing vision and authority Brendel brings to it, and perhaps a touch of Brendel’s ability to inhabit and define its remoter regions. In general, Aimard imposes himself as a personality less than Brendel – I have been revisiting his sumptuous set of the concertos with the Vienna Philharmonic and Rattle while getting to know this new one. In spite of being different exercises, their distinction touches at several points and is comparable in degree. What Aimard doesn’t match is the variety of sound and the amplitude of Brendel’s expressiveness in the first two concertos’ slow movements. Exactly how you hit largo in the C major Concerto (No 1) while conveying two slow beats in the bar, not four, is tricky; but it is immediately evident that Brendel is moving (and keeping moving) in a much richer interior world. These magnificent early achievements are no less characteristic of Beethoven than his later music; the slow movement of the B flat Concerto (No 2) is another high point of Brendel’s set, and by the side of it, inevitably perhaps, Aimard’s version seems plainer.

Balances are good, with the piano placed in a concert-hall perspective. However the balance on the piano tends to change a bit when we reach the first-movement cadenzas, and sometimes very slightly within them. The cadenzas, all Beethoven’s, are the long one in the C major Concerto (the soloist has a choice of three) and the second (less often played than the other) in the G major. Given the daring quality of the enterprise, it’s curious to find the first movement of the C major treated so sedately by Aimard, the cadenza included (his timing 19'13", as opposed to Brendel’s 17'06"). I shall return to this work less often than to the other four, I think, where I’ve found a balance of imagination and rigour that is exactly to my taste, much delight and refreshment, and where I’ve sometimes been blown away. Stephen Plaistow (April 2003)

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5

Paul Lewis pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek

Harmonia Mundi

With this three-disc album of Beethoven’s piano concertos Paul Lewis complements his earlier set of the 32 sonatas and also his appearances at the Proms this summer where for the first time all five concertos will be played by a single artist. So may I say at once that Harmonia Mundi’s eagerly awaited set is a superlative achievement and that Lewis’s partnership with Jirí Belohlávek is an ideal match of musical feeling, vigour and refinement.

True, for aficionados of eccentricity – even of brilliant eccentricity – from the likes of Gould, Pletnev and Mustonen, Lewis may at times seem overly restrained but the rewards of such civilised, musically responsible and vital playing seem to me infinite. Above all there is no sense of an artist looking over his shoulder to see what other pianists have come up with. Throughout the cycle Lewis is enviably and naturally true to his own distinctive lights, his unassuming but shining musicianship always paramount. His stylistic consistency can make the singling-out of this or that detail irrelevant, yet how could I fail to mention Lewis’s and Belohlávek’s true sense of the Allegro con brio in the First Concerto, in music-making that is vital but never driven? Less rugged than, say, Serkin, such playing is no less personal and committed. In the central Largo Lewis achieves a quiet, hauntingly sustained poise and eloquence, while in the finale his crisp articulation sends Beethoven’s early ebullience dancing into captivating life.

The same virtues characterise the Second Concerto; but when it comes to the Third, Lewis and Belohlávek (and one is always aware of a true partnership) hit a more controversial note. The first movement is less con brio than from most, as if to emphasise Beethoven’s step towards a darker region of the imagination (what EM Forster memorably called “Beethoven’s C minor of life”), while the finale is thought-provoking in its restraint. Yet once again Lewis’s comprehensive mastery is devoid of all overt display, and in the Fourth Concerto his playing achieves a rare nimbleness, affection and transparency. And if there are those who, again, wish for a higher degree of drama and assertion, others will recognise an artist who, in Charles Rosen’s words, achieves so much while appearing to do so little (pianists such as Lipatti, Solomon and Clara Haskil come to mind). At the same time the Fourth Concerto contains some delightful surprises. Lewis’s ad libitum flourish at 6'12" in the finale provides an exuberant touch, as do his deft and witty arpeggiations of the chords just before the concerto’s homecoming. Here in particular is an engaging and playful rejoinder to the Andante con moto’s introspection, the entire performance delectably animated and light-fingered. Nor is there a hint of strain or strenuous characterisation in the Fifth Concerto. Lewis’s first entry in the Adagio has a slight catch in the voice, as it were, to register the music’s sublimity, and his overall approach is devoid of the tub-thumping rhetoric familiar from too many Emperors.

And so, all in all, these records take their place among the finest Beethoven piano concerto performances so that even when you recall beloved issues by Wilhelm Kempff, Emil Gilels, Radu Lupu and Murray Perahia (to name but four), Lewis ensures that you return refreshed and with a renewed sense of Beethoven’s range and beauty. Personally I would never want to be without any of those previous discs, nor without Argerich’s never-to-be-completed recordings (sadly she considers the Fourth Concerto outside her scope; can her friends and musical partners Nelson Freire and Stephen Kovacevich persuade her otherwise?). Balance and sound are natural and exemplary, leaving us to look forward to Lewis’s forthcoming CD of the Diabelli Variations, for Brendel the greatest of all keyboard works. This is a cycle to live with and revisit. Bryce Morrison (September 2010)

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'The Beethoven Journey' (Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia)

Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes pf

Sony

Review of Vol 3: To have arrived so soon at the end of this journey seems almost a pity, for the company has been most engaging, by turns profound and delightful. It’s a rare treat to have the Choral Fantasy as a juicy extra to the concertos. I was made more than usually aware of its original context – as the finale of the famously epic concert that also saw the premieres of, among others, the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the Fourth Concerto; suddenly I noticed connections between the Fantasy and the Fourth that previously passed me by. Robert Levin may be matchless in conveying the rhetoric of the extended piano opening but Andsnes manages to be lithe and spontaneous-sounding, and doesn’t overplay hints of melodrama – dangerously tempting with all those diminished sevenths scattered about. The Mahler CO wind are predictably characterful in their variations on the theme that prefigures the ‘Ode to Joy’ and the chorus are fervent without sounding too butch. That’s in part down to the performers and in part surely the recording, in that most eloquent of spaces, the Prague Rudolfinum.

The Fantasy is much more than just a handy filler but it’s the Fifth Concerto that is likely to be the real draw. So how does this one stack up? Andsnes makes his mark in the initial flourish with playing that has the requisite steel but which is tempered with a twinkle. The qualities that made the previous instalments so compelling are here too: the naturalness with which piano and orchestra meld and converse and, at times, tussle; the airiness of the textures; the subtlety of the details. The clarinet phrases (at 1'21"), for instance, dance more than those of Rattle’s BPO. And the Mahler CO’s timpanist adds to the buoyancy of effect but again subtlety is the watchword. In a way Andsnes reminds me of Schnabel in his sureness of touch, albeit in a very different style; Kissin’s point-making and self-conscious massiveness have no place here.

The string introduction to the slow movement is another glorious passage and – praise be – it’s not too slow (though I must confess to a guilty pleasure in Gilels’s rapt reading, ultra-spacious though it is). Andsnes is limpid, apparently simple, in those deliquescent phrases. But one of the most impressive aspects of this reading is the transition from slow movement to finale. So often it bumps: Pollini, Kissin…I could go on. Perahia on the other hand is just right, as is Brendel. And so is Andsnes. It helps that none of these go hell for leather in the last movement, instead imbuing the muscularity of the writing, with its ungainly rhythms, with a healthy dose of gleefulness. The unanimity in the closing bars between Andsnes and his orchestra says it all. Having used up my stash of superlatives, all I can say is: go buy. Harriet Smith (Awards issue 2014)

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Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia. Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Yefim Bronfman pf Tonhalle Orchestra, Zurich / David Zinman

Brilliant Classics (originally Arte Nova)

This Zurich performance of the First Concerto is beautifully articulated. True, there are moments of grandeur but the overall impression is of a poised, at times chamber-like traversal, with sculpted pianism and crisply pointed orchestral support. The sensation of shared listening, between Bronfman and the players and between the players themselves, is at its most acute in the First Concerto’s Largo, which although kept on a fairly tight rein is extremely supple (the woodwinds in particular excel). In the finale, Bronfman and the Tonhalle provide a clear, shapely aural picture.

Bronfman’s B flat Concerto (No 2) has the expected composure, the many running passages in the first movement polished if relatively understated. Again the slow movement is full of unaffected poetry and the finale (with the odd added embellishment) is appropriately buoyant – has Bronfman ever played better?

Rather than opt for superficial barnstorming, Yefim Bronfman and David Zinman offer us a discreet, subtly voiced and above all durable Emperor, that rewards listening with increasing musical dividends. Bronfman plays with a light, precise though never brittle touch, always phrasing elegantly and dipping his tone whenever important instrumental lines need to be heard. There are numerous details that reveal how minutely all the participants are listening to each other. The slow movement unfolds in a mood of unruffled calm, Bronfman’s first entry gentle, delicate, with an appropriate, even touching simplicity. The finale is brisk and energetic and the way Bronfman keeps accompanying rhythmic figurations light and well buoyed is most appealing.

The fill-ups are worthwhile, the Choral Fantasy’s long solo opening more thoughtful than usual and with a bright, easy-going contribution from the chorus. Nothing is ever forced or overstated and the contrast in the seven-minute Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage between worrying stillness and the first signs of a redeeming breeze, ingeniously painted by slowly swirling triplets, is superbly handled.

It is hard to imagine anyone being less than satisfied with Bronfman and Zinman, the Tonhalle Orchestra scoring top marks for teamwork, their woodwinds sounding fully on a par with Europe’s best. Superbly balanced sound helps clinch an unmissable bargain.

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Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4

Maria João Pires pf Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding

DG

Even with a never-ending stream of Beethoven piano concerto recordings, whether from established masters (Kempff, Arrau, Gilels, etc) or work in progress (Andsnes and Sudbin), few performances come within distance of Pires’s Classical/Romantic perspective. In her own memorable ‘artist’s note’ she speaks of that knife-edge poise between creator and recreator, of what must finally be resolved into a ‘primal simplicity’. And here you sense that she is among those truly great artists who, in Charles Rosen’s words, appear to do so little and end by doing everything (his focus on Lipatti, Clara Haskil and Solomon).

Not since Myra Hess have I heard a more rapt sense of the Fourth Concerto’s ineffable poetry, whether in the unfaltering poise of her opening, her radiant, dancing Vivace finale or, perhaps most of all, in the Andante’s nodal and expressive centre, where she achieves wonders of eloquence and transparency. Never for a moment does she over-reach herself or force her pace and sonority. Others such as Arrau may speak with a weightier voice but even that great pianist would surely have marvelled at the purity and sheen of Pires’s playing. Few pianists have ever been more true to their own lights and it is hardly surprising that her many performances of this concerto in London and elsewhere have become the stuff of legends.

Much the same could be said of her way with the Third Concerto, where she is equally attuned to Beethoven’s ‘C minor of that life’ (EM Forster). Few have achieved a greater translucency in the central Largo or more subtly poetic virtues elsewhere. All this makes it difficult to celebrate the ‘interpretations’ of pianists such as the not always endearing Glenn Gould, Pletnev or Mustonen. Pires’s performances are quite simply of another order. She is well balanced and recorded, and Daniel Harding and Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra are more than warm and sympathetic partners. It is my dearest wish that this will become a complete cycle. Bryce Morrison (October 2014)

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Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4

Murray Perahia pf Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink

Sony Classical

Integration: the difference in quality of this recording has to do not so much with the remarkable soloist as with the definition that comes from superb orchestral playing and direction and from everyone working together. The placing, length, weight and colour of every note have been considered and these quantities and qualities are precise. The air of purpose about the playing – and I do not mean that it sounds just well drilled – is so compelling as to make you feel these concertos couldn’t be done in any other way.

Textures glow with sonority, the massive and the delicate alike. The colours are so sharp as to appear an aspect of the linear energy, inseparable from the continuity; you don’t have the impression they are merely playing over the face of the music. I am aware there are colleagues writing in Gramophone who have reviewed many more recordings of Beethoven piano concertos than I but I risk the statement that the excellence of Haitink and the Concertgebouw in these has not been surpassed. 

I noticed little deterioration in the quality of sound on the long sides. The recordings, made in the Concertgebouw, reflect the acoustic character of the hall, and the balances suggest the natural perspective of solo piano with orchestra as we might experience it there from a good seat. When you turn to other records you may be struck by how unnaturally imminent the piano often is in relation to the rest. You are likely to be impressed here, I think, by the depth of the perspective, by the clear placing of everything in the picture and by how well the recording team have captured the lightness and translucence of the sound. Above all, Haitink has given the sound variety of weight. The beginning of the C minor’s first movement, for instance, is refreshingly lithe and crisp, with a late 18th- rather than late 19th-century gravitas to it, and it makes you think straight away of the concerto in the same key by Mozart for which Beethoven had such admiration and without which his own might not have been written the way it is. The sound gives you a heightened sense of where the piece comes from and where it belongs in Beethoven’s work. But then equally admirable is the way Haitink characterises Beethoven, through the sound, when he is at his most original: at the beginning of the Fourth Concerto’s slow movement, for example, where the string writing has you by the throat, and again at the moment in the finale of the G major, at the first tutti, where the trumpets and drums enter for the first time, with electrifying effect. When Perahia enters in the C minor first movement you realize just how skilfully the scene has been set and the stage arranged for his performance to make the best effect. I would count this movement and the finale of the G major as two of the finest things he has done on records.

The Allegro con brio of the C minor is not at all small-scale, but it has a crystalline elegance of sound – and to that extent a Mozartian quality – which is greatly to my taste, and what Perahia does amounts in my estimation to a brilliant re-creation. The cadenza and the following dialogue with the timpani are high spots. The G major last movement too is irresistible, brought off as a tour de force with vivacity tempered by just the right quantities of delicacy and balletic grace: it is tremendously fast but impeccably articulate. The energy and the transparency are delightful but it is the range of the playing which astonishes. And there are marvels too in the finale of the C minor: but there I found brilliance and elegance a little too much to the fore, as if this was how Mendelssohn might have played it. The presto at the end doesn’t seem much of a change from what has gone before. 

I mentioned the range: the crystalline quality of Perahia’s sound, so characteristic of him, can sometimes appear too unvaried, though in saying this I express only the smallest of reservations. He never asks you to admire his fingers but you can be made aware of hammers and attacks in a way that would not be brought to mind by Kempff (DG), say, or Gilels (Warner Classics). In Pollini’s classic account of the G major Concerto with Böhm (DG) you sense that he is a little more relaxed with it and that all those notes in the first movement sound a mite longer, while being just as precisely played. (Perahia, by the way, plays the first movement exactly as Beethoven wrote it, avoiding, in bar 318 and elsewhere, the high D which was not available on Beethoven’s pianos but which, from analogous passages of figuration earlier on, he would surely have used if he could.) So perhaps Pollini is better at projecting the serenity; I certainly prefer him for his broader, less excitable handling of the ‘storm’ in the first movement’s development. You may agree too that Perahia doesn’t match the rapt, interior quality of Kovacevich (Philips) in the slow movement of the C minor Concerto, who takes a full minute longer over it. 

I do miss Brendel in these works – his Philips set of the five Beethovens with the same conductor as Perahia has been deleted. But, for the time being, my enthusiasm for the new record is paramount. 

If you have already enjoyed this artist in Beethoven sonatas you will not be specially surprised, I dare say, at his excellence here; and, for me, Haitink and the Concertgebouw have turned the record into a feast. Stephen Plaistow (July 1986) 

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Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Till Fellner pf Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Kent Nagano

ECM

Till Fellner, always among the more quietly celebrated pianists, includes Alfred Brendel among his mentors and together with Kent Nagano and the Montreal SO gives us two of the most supremely satisfying performances of both these concertos on record. This is a dream partnership with soloist and conductor working hand-in-glove, and even when you conjure with so many glorious names in such core repertoire (from Schnabel to Lupu) you will rarely hear playing of such an enviable, unimpeded musical grace and fluency.

Fellner surely belongs among that elite who Charles Rosen so memorably defined as those who, while they appear to do nothing, achieve everything. His playing is subtly rather than ostentatiously coloured and inflected, and if others might be thought more vivid or personal, Fellner’s and Nagano’s ease and naturalness always allow Beethoven his own voice. Fellner’s still small voice of calm in the Fourth Concerto’s central Andante con moto is one among many glories, and if many of us are looking ahead to Paul Lewis’s forthcoming cycle of the complete concertos, and also to a possible recording by Maria João Pires, whose performances have been universally admired, even they will be hard pressed to equal let alone surpass Fellner’s Olympian mastery. Some biographical reminders and a total timing would have been helpful but balance and sound are pleasingly natural and this memorable issue is crowned with a short but intriguing essay by Paul Griffiths. Bryce Morrison (June 2010)

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Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5

Emil Gilels pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Leopold Ludwig

Warner Classics

This is one of the – perhaps the most – perfect accounts of the Fourth Concerto ever recorded. Poetry and virtuosity are held in perfect poise, with Ludwig and the Philharmonia providing a near-ideal accompaniment. The recording is also very fine, though be sure to gauge the levels correctly by first sampling one of the tuttis. If the volume is set too high at the start, you will miss the stealing magic of Gilels’s and the orchestra’s initial entries and you will be further discomfited by tape hiss that, with the disc played at a properly judged level, is more or less inaudible.

The recording of the Emperor Concerto is also pretty good, making one wonder what aberrations of LP technology led Roger Fiske and Trevor Harvey to get so angry about the mono and stereo originals when they first appeared in 1957-8. As to the performance, this is not quite on a par with that of the Fourth Concerto. Ludwig and the orchestra tend to follow Gilels rather than integrate with him in the way that Menges and the Philharmonia do on Solomon’s classic 1955 recording (EMI, 11/95). There are times, too, especially in the slow movement, when Gilels’s playing borders on the self-indulgent. (Do I hear Szell’s shade stirring and muttering, “Now you see my point”?) This is not, however, sufficient reason for overlooking this fine and important Testament reissue.

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Violin Concerto

Itzhak Perlman vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini 

Warner Classics

Perlman's first entry couId hardly be more deceptive, that ladder-like climb of spread octaves which many virtuosi (Anne-Sophie Mutter on DG for example) present commandingly, but which Perlman plays with such gentleness that he emerges almost imperceptibly from the orchestra. It is a measure of Perlman's artistry that an effect which could sound selfconsciously poetic or even weak at once establishes the soloist's command; for this is a spacious performance which uses a relatively measured tempo, steadily maintained, to create the strongest possible structure in a movement which in time at least (almost 25 minutes) is Beethoven's longest symphonic first movement. Where both Chung (Decca) and Mutter are above all lyrical and meditative, illuminatingly so, Perlman's is a more obviously virile purposeful reading with the orchestral tuttis closely co-ordinated - just as they are in the Krebbers version (Philips) with a soloist who at the time was also concertmaster of the orchestra. One might even relate the reading of that first movement to Giulini's spacious but concentrated reading of the Eroica Symphony with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra (DG, 5/79). It is striking that even in the Kreisler cadenza Perlman prefers to keep the feeling of a steady pulse, and the entry into the coda in its total purity and simplicity is even more affecting than the fine accounts in the other three versions.

Both there and in the slow movement Mutter and Chung adopt a more consciously expressive style, but there is no question at any point of Perlman sounding rigid, for within his steady pulse he 'magicks' phrase after phrase. The hushed third theme of the slow movement has an easeful serenity to set against the more tender, vulnerable emotions conveyed by Chung and Mutter. With them poetry is perhaps more important than drama, but Perlman - certainly poetic in his way, always noting the many key passages marked dolce - confirms the strength of his reading in his superbly sprung account of the finale, the tempo marginally faster than that of any of the others (markedly faster than Chung) but masterfully confident. With full, warm digital recording, there is no finer version available, combining as it does so many of the special qualities one finds in the Chung and Mutter versions on the one hand, and in the strong, incisive Krebbers on the other. Edward Greenfield (September 1981)

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Violin Concerto

Isabelle Faust vn Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

Harmonia Mundi

The Beethoven and Berg violin concertos aren’t commonly paired on disc. However, in this case it seems like an inspired piece of programme planning, with an account of the Berg that plumbs its depths of melancholy, setting off a radiant, life-affirming performance of the Beethoven.

Berg could be accused of giving too many instructions to his performers, of not allowing enough room for individual interpretation. He certainly presents them with plenty to think about; in the waltz-like second section of the concerto’s second movement, Isabelle Faust is required, within a few bars, to characterise her part as scherzando, wienerisch and rustico. She succeeds brilliantly; one feels, in this and other places, that such precision actually helps her to convey the intensity of feeling that lies behind this concerto dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel’.

Faust’s stylish way with the waltz episodes brings a suggestion of gaiety that renders more poignant the effect of the dark, complex harmony – a bright memory rendered sad and bitter. In the second movement, after the fierce virtuosity she brings to the declamatory opening section, she chooses the alternative version of the canonic cadenza (suggested by the composer) where she is joined by a solo viola, rather than realising unaided the four-part counterpoint. This passage sounds truly beautiful, like an uneasy oasis of calm in the middle of turbulent conflict, and I’ve become convinced it’s the best way to hear the music.

Abbado and the Orchestra Mozart also take careful notice of the score’s myriad directions, and the effect is similarly to liberate the intensity and beauty of the music. After the harrowing climax at the end of the first part of the second movement, where the Bach chorale (whose melody is related to Berg’s 12-note row) makes its appearance, the effect of having the grieving voice of the solo violin answered by the clarinet choir more quietly, but also slightly faster, and so less weighed down, is perfectly realised – we immediately appreciate why Berg wrote it so.

Few recordings of the Berg have achieved this level of detailed commitment from soloist and orchestra. One that does so is Josef Suk’s, made in 1968 with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra under Karel An∂erl, and they manage to stay closer to Berg’s metronome markings – some passages in Faust’s recording are on the slow side, though I can’t see that it spoils the performance in any way. And this new account enjoys more mellifluous recorded sound, with far superior definition.

Beethoven may not give as many directions as Berg, but from the very first bars the Orchestra Mozart’s woodwind choir show the same care over detail, the instruments perfectly balanced and with a commitment to bringing out the music’s soulful, expressive character. This sets the tone for the performance, Abbado encouraging his players to maximise the expressive quality of each theme, while keeping a firm hand on the unfolding of the larger design. He and Faust see eye to eye in wishing to preserve a proper Allegro ma non troppo for the first movement and not to be awed by the work’s reputation into presenting it as a grand, Olympian utterance with little vitality (as on the Maxim Vengerov/Rostropovich recording). It’s not just a matter of tempo, either; to all the running passages in the first movement and finale, Isabelle Faust brings a spirited style that at moments becomes positively fiery. A notable example is her cadenza in the finale (track 5, 6'20"). Faust bases her cadenzas and lead-ins on those Beethoven wrote for his adaptation of the work as a piano concerto. This is often an uncomfortable option: Beethoven’s cadenzas (that in the first movement includes an important role for timpani) take the music in surprising directions – more extrovert and playful – and it’s quite difficult to arrange some passages idiomatically for the violin. However, by judicious omission, brilliant playing and sheer conviction, Faust finds a solution that’s both authentically Beethovenian and violinistically convincing.

The Larghetto’s initial theme is most sensitively shaped by the Orchestra Mozart strings and, at Faust’s entry, she is accompanied by especially beautiful solo clarinet and bassoon lines. In this movement, Faust finds a particularly wide range of tone colour, twice receding to the merest whisper and in several places practically omitting vibrato, relying for expression on changes in bow speed and pressure, so creating a powerful sense of concentration in the melodic line. It’s entirely characteristic of this performance that the sudden orchestral outburst at the end of the Larghetto, heralding the cadenza that leads to the finale, which so often seems inappropriately formal, here comes as a shocking surprise, a rude awakening from an exquisite dream.

In recent years, there have been several fine recordings of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Faust’s performance has a grandeur that Christian Tetzlaff’s sweeter, more intimate account doesn’t attempt to match. Janine Jansen has the grandeur but doesn’t quite rival Faust’s expressive range or emotional intensity. Outstanding performances of both concertos, then; I’ll want to return to them often. Duncan Druce (March 2012)

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Composer: 

The 50 greatest Mozart recordings

Gramophone Mon 16th May 2016

Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Mozart recordings available

The 50 greatest Mozart recordings
The 50 greatest Mozart recordings

It is a sure sign of the greatness of Mozart's music that it has proved so ripe for re-interpretation and discovery by every generation of musicians for 250 years. In the list below we have gathered 50 of the finest recordings of Mozart's music – Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs, from Dennis Brain and George Szell to Arabella Steinbacher and the Jussen brothers. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental, vocal and opera. We have also included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 40,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to this unique and endlessly fascinating resource, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

 

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Clarinet Concerto. Oboe Concerto. Flute and Harp Concerto

Wolfgang Meyer cl Hans-Peter Westermann ob Robert Wolf fl Naoko Yoshino hp Concentus Musicus Wien / Nikolaus Harnoncourt

(Teldec/Warner Classics)

There are happy and shapely performances of all three concertos here, but the particular delight is that of the latest and greatest of them, the Clarinet Concerto, which Wolfgang Meyer plays on a basset clarinet – that is, an instrument with an extension allowing it to add four semitones at the bottom of its compass. This is the instrument for which the work was originally composed, although only a text adapted to the normal clarinet has come down to us. The reconstruction used here, slightly different in some of its detail from others I have heard, works very well, making the familiar text’s rough places plain and logical; and it serves ideally for Meyer, with his rich and oily bottom register.

The first-movement tempo is on the leisurely side, giving him plenty of opportunity for refined and subtle moulding of the lines. Even the bravura music, shaded with delicacy, emerges with expressive content, and I admired especially Meyer’s light, fluid articulation of semiquaver runs. There is a rapt account of the Adagio and a lively Rondo, beautifully articulated; in both, the availability of the extra notes makes clear the logic of Mozart’s lines as he must have conceived them. Meyer has less rounded, more reedy a tone than many players favour. He adds a little ornamentation here and there, where Mozart seems to invite it; just once or twice I wasn’t quite comfortable with what he did. Altogether, though, a very musical and appealing performance.

In the Flute and Harp Concerto there is some delicate, clear playing from both soloists in what is perhaps a slightly austere reading of the first movement. The Andantino, too, is taken rather slowly, and with a chamber-musical refinement, with coolly aristocratic flute playing from Robert Wolf and gently expressive shaping from Naoko Yoshino. I thought the finale was a little restrained and pensive, certainly graceful but not quite as dance-like or as much fun as this gavotte-rhythm piece ought to be (and the interpretation of the appoggiatura in the main theme seems to me perverse). Hans-Peter Westermann contributes a sweet-toned and neatly phrased account of the Oboe Concerto, yet again rather leisured in tempo, in the finale in particular, and with one or two orchestral oddities especially in matters of accentuation (characteristic of Harnoncourt’s direction). But altogether a disc with much polished and sensitive playing. Stanley Sadie (March 2001)

 

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Horn Concertos

Dennis Brain hn Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan

(Warner Classics)

Dennis Brain was the finest Mozartian soloist of his generation. Again and again Karajan matches the graceful line of his solo phrasing (the Romance of No 3 is just one ravishing example), while in the Allegros the crisply articulated, often witty comments from the Philharmonia violins are a joy. The glorious tone and the richly lyrical phrasing of every note from Brain himself is life-enhancing in its radiant warmth. The Rondos aren't just spirited, buoyant, infectious and smiling, although they're all these things, but they have the kind of natural flow that Beecham gave to Mozart.

There's also much dynamic subtlety – Brain doesn't just repeat the main theme the same as the first time, but alters its level and colour. His legacy to future generations of horn players has been to show them that the horn – a notoriously difficult instrument – can be tamed absolutely and that it can yield a lyrical line and a range of colour to match any other solo instrument. He was tragically killed, in his prime, in a car accident while travelling home overnight from the Edinburgh Festival. He left us this supreme Mozartian testament which may be approached by others but rarely, if ever, equalled, for his was uniquely inspirational music-making, with an innocent-like quality to make it the more endearing. It's a pity to be unable to be equally enthusiastic about the recorded sound. The remastering leaves the horn timbre, with full Kingsway Hall resonance, unimpaired, but has dried out the strings. This, though, remains a classic recording.

 

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Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra No 10. Flute and Harp Concerto. Horn Concerto No 3

Ulrich Hübner hn Frank Theuns fl Marjan de Haern hp Yoko Kaneko pf Anima Eterna / Jos van Immerseel pf

(Zig-Zag)

Director and fortepianist Jos van Immerseel is a veritable pioneer of period Mozart. Belgian period-instrument orchestra Anima Eterna’s exuberant performances reveal a natural union of pioneering spirit and refreshing musical flavours. The performers show commendable integrity in their approach to using historical instruments: the characteristics and origins of the solo instruments are each enthusiastically described in the booklet-note but the loving care given to detail in this joyful music means this is never in danger of seeming merely a dour academic exercise.

The invigorating Concerto for two pianos (Salzburg, 1779-80) opens proceedings with a revitalising fix of blazing horns, vibrant woodwind and articulate strings. Anima Eterna’s stunning playing in the tuttis is perfectly balanced with the fluent playing of Immerseel and Yoko Kaneko. After such joie de vivre, the Flute and Harp Concerto (Paris, 1778) features sensitively judged playing from Frank Theuns and Marjan de Haer. I have rarely encountered such an affectionate and warmly stylish performance of the Allegro, and the Andantino is ravishing.

Ulrich Hübner plays with attractive immediacy in the Third Horn Concerto, composed around 1787: the poetic Romance has a lyrical elegance one seldom hears from even the best natural horn players, and an infectiously sunny performance of the dance-like Allegro concludes this magnificent recording with a charismatic flourish. These performances are radiant: if you buy only one Mozart CD this anniversary year, let it be this one. David Vickers (August 2006)

 

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Complete Piano Concertos

English Chamber Orchestra / Murray Perahia pf

(Sony Classical)

Mozart concertos from the keyboard are unbeatable. There's a rightness, an effortlessness, about doing them this way that makes for heightened enjoyment. So many of them seem to gain in vividness when the interplay of pianist and orchestra is realised by musicians listening to each other in the manner of chamber music. Provided the musicians are of the finest quality, of course. We now just take for granted that the members of the English Chamber Orchestra will match the sensibility of the soloist. They are on top form here, as is Perahia, and the finesse of detail is breathtaking.

Just occasionally Perahia communicates an 'applied' quality – a refinement which makes some of his statements sound a little too good to be true. But the line of his playing, appropriately vocal in style, is exquisitely moulded; and the only reservations one can have are that a hushed, 'withdrawn' tone of voice, which he's little too ready to use, can bring an air of selfconsciousness to phrases where ordinary, radiant daylight would have been more illuminating; and that here and there a more robust treatment of brilliant passages would have been in place. However, the set is entirely successful on its own terms – whether or not you want to make comparisons with other favourite recordings.

Indeed, we now know that records of Mozart piano concertos don't come any better played than here.

 

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Piano Concerto No 22

Alfred Brendel pf Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

(Philips)

Brendel's first recording of Mozart's expansive and luxuriantly scored Piano Concerto in E flat , K482 appeared 14 years ago (8/69), and it is fascinating to compare it with this new one. Both are notable for their sense of style and their clean but always sensitive and musical articulation in runs, and both show a readiness to embellish Mozart's oflen sketchy melodic line: indeed, Brendel's elaboration of the solo part in the lovely Andantino cantabile episode in the final Rondo might almost be considered overdone, tasteful though it is. But the new performance has, as one would expect, a maturity and authority not to be found in the earlier one; the cadenzas (by Brendel himself - Mozart's own were probably never written down, and have certainly not survived) are appropriate and reasonably succinct; and Brendel is less eager to join in the orchestral tutti, a practice which, though historically justifiable, makes musical nonsense when the solo instrument is a modern grand. In addition, the new recording, technically first-rate, has the benefit of exemplary accompaniment by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under the unerring guidance of Neville Marriner. For anyone wanting a recording of K482 as near perfection as one is likely to get, this new issue is the obvious answer. Robin Golding (October 1977)

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 18-22

Northern Sinfonia / Imogen Cooper pf

(Avie)

Imogen Cooper’s two previous Mozart concerto releases with the Northern Sinfonia and Bradley Creswick (12/06 and 8/08) have both been roundly praised and no one who enjoyed them is likely to be disappointed by this latest instalment. Indeed, the qualities that make Cooper quite simply one of the finest pianists this country has produced make her perfect for Mozart duty. Clear but velvety ringing tone, perfect voicing of chords, unsleeping alertness to the necessary subtleties of rubato and line, and above all an ability to realise this music’s intimate poetry that can make you catch your breath, make these performances the kind that any musician should listen to and learn from.

There are good opportunities to display such artistry in these two concertos, both of which have minor-key slow movements of considerable emotional sophistication, to which Cooper responds with depth and grace. She is not always quite matched in this by the orchestra, it must be said – the wind episodes in the Andante of K482 are rather cold and the rapt beauties of Cooper’s playing of the minuet theme in the same work’s finale are slightly trodden on by the unison violin line that goes with it – but in general the Northern Sinfonia provide backing that is musically engaged, texturally transparent and technically right up to the mark. Their opening to K482 has all the rich grandeur it needs, and here indeed is one quality which some listeners may feel is a little lacking in Cooper. Likewise playfulness and simple hard-edged brilliance of tone, for instance in Paul Badura-Skoda’s witty cadenzas for K482 or the lead-backs in the finale of K456. But then, when what she does give us is so much, why worry too much about what she doesn’t? Lindsay Kemp (January 2011)

 

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Piano Concerto No 27. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K365

Emil Gilels, Elena Gilels pfs Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm

(DG)

This is the most beautiful of Mozart playing, his last piano concerto given here by Emil Gilels with total clarity. This is a classic performance, memorably accompanied by the VPO and Böhm. Suffice it to say that Gilels sees everything and exaggerates nothing, that the performance has an Olympian authority and serenity, and that the Larghetto is one of the glories of the gramophone. He's joined by his daughter Elena in the Double Piano Concerto in E flat, and their physical relationship is mirrored in the quality, and the mutual understanding of the playing: both works receive marvellous interpretations.

We think Emil plays first, Elena second, but could be quite wrong. The VPO under Karl Böhm is at its best; and so is the quality of recording, with a good stereo separation of the two solo parts, highly desirable in this work. Stephen Plaistow (November 1974)

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 18 & 22

Ronald Brautigam fp Cologne Academy / Michael Alexander Willens

(BIS)

In a letter to his daughter Nannerl, Leopold Mozart expressed his pleasure at the interplay of the various instruments after hearing Wolfgang perform the B flat Concerto, K456. I experienced comparable delight listening to this beautifully recorded performance from Ronald Brautigam and the responsive Cologne period band. In a Mozartian opera reimagined in instrumental terms, fortepiano, wind and strings conspire and banter with captivating grace and legerdemain.

Likewise using a modern copy of an Anton Walter fortepiano, Brautigam favours rather fleeter tempi, and a more direct style of phrasing, than Robert Levin on his fine L’Oiseau Lyre recording with Christopher Hogwood (11/96 – nla). In the first movement, with its suggestion of a march for toy soldiers, Levin is more reflective, Brautigam more playfully extrovert, stressing continuity of line above rhythmic and tonal nuance. I prefer Brautigam’s more flowing manner in the G minor Andante, where Levin’s minute inflections can sound over-exquisite. The period woodwind, led by the virginal solo flute, are especially delectable in the serenading G major variation. As to the ‘hunting’ finale, you’d go far to hear a performance of such darting wit and panache, or one that exudes such a sense of delighted collusion between woodwind – each one an operatic character in itself – and the fortepiano’s sweet, silvery treble.

In the more opulently scored K482 (trumpets and drums, oboes replaced by clarinets) I ideally wanted a fuller string tone than the 14 Cologne players can muster. That said, the performance is scarcely less enjoyable than that of K456, not least in the C minor Andante, which at Brautigam’s unusually mobile tempo is just as touching, and (in the confrontational second variation) more dramatic, than in more gravely paced readings. Brautigam generates an exhilarating forward sweep in the regal opening movement – Levin (9/98 – nla) is more inclined to linger over detail – and an infectious sense of fun in the finale, where swiftness never compromises immaculate clarity of articulation. His own cadenzas are short and to the point. Levin’s are longer, cleverer and more consciously showy. Again, some may find Brautigam too swift in the finale’s sensuous Così fan tutte-ish interlude, with its ravishing clarinet sonorities. For me the easily flowing pace and delicate touches of embellishment, predictably less lavish than Levin’s, mesh perfectly with the animated naturalness of the whole performance. Richard Wigmore (July 2014)

 

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Piano Concertos Nos 20 & 25

Martha Argerich pf Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado

(DG)

A disc of Mozart piano concertos recorded in concert by Martha Argerich with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart was always going to be a delicious prospect. Hearing of Abbado’s death as I write these words turns the pleasure of hearing it into something altogether more bittersweet. Lucky were those souls who heard these performances of the D minor Concerto, K466, and the C major Concerto, K503, at the Lucerne Festival last March – an experience denied London audiences a few months later when first the ailing Abbado and then Argerich cancelled their appearances. (Not that the stand-ins were any sort of disappointment – Bernard Haitink and Maria João Pires.)

Both Argerich and Abbado have returned to Mozart late in their careers: she revisiting the piano duets and a handful of concertos; he forming the hand-picked and youthful Orchestra Mozart specifically for the purpose. Not uncharacteristically for her, the present concertos are both works she has recorded before – the D minor in 1998 (Teldec/Elatus, 6/99), the C major in 1978 (EMI, 4/00) and again as recently as 2012, during that year’s Progetto Martha Argerich at Lugano (EMI, 8/13). Of that last recording, Caroline Gill wrote that it was ‘musically and technically equal to anything she has recorded in the studio’; but here again she surpasses herself. The backing of the exquisitely refined Orchestra Mozart grants full rein to her personal brand of expressivity. Every note matters, both individually and as part of a phrase, and once again her microscopic alterations of touch make even the most mundane run of semiquavers dance and sing, imparting something undefinable and treasurable to her performances here.

The C major comes first on the disc, the grandeur of Abbado’s introduction contrasting with the spirited filigree of Argerich’s solo contribution. She is fully alive to the darker undertow of the D minor, perhaps the only disappointment being Abbado’s refusal fully to acknowledge the way the work’s Sturm und Drang demeanour is undercut by the whiff of Singspiel at the work’s close, the sound world of Don Giovanni giving way to that of Papageno and The Magic Flute. Argerich sets off with a will in the finale but doesn’t let herself get carried away in the Romanze’s central convulsion, sticking firmly to the tempo of the gentler outer sections. Where she does let go the full power of her virtuosity is in the cadenzas: her teacher Friedrich Gulda’s in K503, the familiar Beethoven in K466. Familiar, perhaps, but rendered almost hallucinogenic when refracted through the prism of her unique musical imagination. David Threasher (March 2014)

 

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Double Concertos

Lucas Jussen, Arthur Jussen pfs Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner

(DG)

Mozart’s Concerto for three pianos, K242, was composed in 1776 for the Countess Lodron and her two daughters, and later arranged for (the only slightly more convenient) two pianos. The Concerto for two pianos proper followed in 1779 and was conceived for Mozart himself and his sister Nannerl to perform together. Much play is made of the opportunities for the pianos to echo each other or hocket figures between the two instruments, as well as simply letting one accompany the other or one provide harmonic filling to the melody of the other. It follows that this music is ideally cast for a pair of pianists who match each other in tone, temperament and technique. Two brothers, for instance.

Lucas (b1993) and Arthur (b1996) Jussen are such an ideal pair, right down to their identical floppy blond hair, black T-shirts and winklepickers. It’s not quite that only their mother can tell them apart, but on hearing them play these two duet concertos, even she might struggle. The cadenza in K365’s opening movement ends with a chromatic scale over three and a half octaves, split between the two pianos, and I swear you can’t hear the join. Those moments where the two pianos toss a motif between each other sound for all the world like a single instrument. And each knows when to fine his tone down to pianissimo to let the other have his moment in the spotlight.

The Jussen boys have found perhaps the perfect collaborator in Sir Neville Marriner, who has conducted more Mozart than most; the Academy acquit themselves well. The disc closes with the sonata that all amateur duettists attempt – the D major of 1772 – perhaps not played with the freedom that comes with the experience enjoyed by Pires and Argerich in Lugano but with a youthful exuberance that’s entirely appropriate for music by a 16-year-old composer. David Threasher (January 2016)

 

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Violin Concertos

Giuliano Carmignola vn Mozart Orchestra / Claudio Abbado

(Archiv)

Virtuoso “violinism” and energising direction notwithstanding, neither Giuliano Carmignola nor Claudio Abbado seems inspired by the B flat Concerto, K207. Nor does slick dispatch do much for the first movement of the D major, K211; but this is not the shape of things to come. Carmignola steps away from neutrality in the succeeding Andante. The music breathes a life of its own as he ardently inflects its phrases to shape the tension and relaxation of his line which – as elsewhere – he also embellishes. And pauses are decorated with lead-ins. Here is personal involvement that from now on is present in full flower.

It’s a flowering for Abbado too, as he summons a passionate advocacy that takes in the implications of key and time signatures on atmosphere and pacing, uses dynamic markings and intuitive accents to keep rhythm aloft, adjusts the timbres of the wind instruments (oboes are vivid or subdued, horns play in alto or basso) to suit the colouration he requires, and aerates the orchestral fabric for maximum clarity. Conducting and interpretation are in the realms of greatness – and no mistake.

In the solo concertos, Carmignola is recorded with varying but small changes of volume. His positioning is steadier in the Sinfonia concertante; and so is his placement with the artistic, if slightly reticent, Danusha Waskiewicz. Nevertheless, their skilled dovetailing and intelligent use of tone colour speak of symbiosis. Abbado remains primus inter pares, watchful, supportive and fortifying. Pity the sound isn’t always clear and detailed. Superlative music making deserves consistently superlative recording. Nalen Anthoni (September 2008)

 

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Top 10 Grieg recordings

Gramophone Wed 13th April 2016

Gramophone's guide to the essential recordings of Edvard Grieg's music – from Dinu Lipatti to Anne Sofie von Otter

Top 10 Grieg recordings
Top 10 Grieg recordings

Piano Concerto

Leif Ove Andsnes pf Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Mariss Jansons

(Warner Classics)

'However many times he has performed the Grieg, Andsnes retains a freshness and expressiveness that never sounds contrived, always spontaneous. That inspirational quality is more markedly perceptible with the new version’s faster tempi, but the expressive flights remain just as broad. In that contrast, Andsnes is firmly supported by Jansons and the Berlin Philharmonic, with playing not just refined but dramatic too in fiercely exciting tuttis...' Read the review

 

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Piano Concerto

Stephen Kovacevich pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Sir Colin Davis

(Philips)

'Kovacevich’s indelibly fresh performance has enchanted for over three decades now. Felicities abound, not least the agile bravura of the first-movement cadenza and captivating skip of the finale.' 

 

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Piano Concerto

Dinu Lipatti pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Alceo Galliera

(Warner Classics)

'Very special playing from Dinu Lipatti; the poetry and rapt beauty of this famous 1947 performance linger long in the memory. It is included here on a seven-disc retrospective – pure gold, all of it!'

 

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Lyric Pieces – excerpts

Leif Ove Andsnes pf

(Warner Classics)

'Taking you on a journey of increasing subtlety and introspection, he makes you aware that so much of this music is for those long winter nights. At the same time the music is so richly varied: the insistent dactylic rhythm of ‘Melody’ creates a strange unsettling poetic ambience, while the central oasis of calm in ‘Wedding Day at Troldhaugen’ would surely melt a heart of stone. All Andsnes’s performances have that deceptive simplicity which is his touchstone...' Read the review

 

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Lyric Pieces

Emil Gilels pf 

(DG)

'Here, surely, is a classic recording, one of calibre and status for all time. Rarely can a great artist have declared his love with such touching candour. By his own admission Gilels discovered in Grieg’s Lyric Pieces a “whole world of intimate feeling” and at the 1974 sessions fought tirelessly to capture their intricate mix of innocence and experience. The results are of an unblemished purity, grace and contained eloquence...' Read the review 

 

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Songs

Anne Sofie von Otter mez Bengt Forsberg pf

'A superbly vigorous and urgent account of A Hope, a wistful, sweetly voiced and played account of Spring (another well-known piece)—extraordinary intensity in the second verse—the charming account of the teasing While I wait and a deeply poetic one of the justly renowned From Monte Pincio are just three definitive interpretations towards the end of a recital that will unquestionably be one of the discs of the year and is a 'must' for any collection of songs, indeed a collection of any kind. It cannot help but afford pleasure. Don't miss it...' Read the review

 

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Cello Sonata

Steven Isserlis vc Stephen Hough pf

(Hyperion)

'Isserlis and Hough balance the urgency of the opening theme of Grieg’s glorious sonata with a luminous reading of the rhapsodic second idea and everywhere their reading glints with conviction. Hough sets a slightly faster pace in the second movement than Pascal Amoyel for Bertrand (another exceptionally fine interpretation), and Isserlis is matchless in the way he tugs at the simple melody to heart-rending effect. The cellist is also deeply moving in the solo opening of the third movement before the lively Halling bursts in...' Read the review

 

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Ballade in G minor

Sigurd Slåttebrekk pf

(Simax)

'His way with the Piano Concerto is magnificently assured and free of self-serving idiosyncrasy but it is in the Ballade that he achieves his greatest stature and distinction. Played on Grieg’s 1892 Steinway in Troldhaugen, these performances are of a moving poetic empathy and musical devotion...' Read the review

 

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Peer Gynt Suites

BPO / Herbert von Karajan

(DG)

'Very impressive indeed. Somehow one feels that one could stretch out and touch the players, so vivid is the sound here. Peer Gynt is most beautifully done. At times you might think the wind could have been a shade more distant, particularly in the ‘By the seashore’ movement but there’s no want of atmosphere here – quite the contrary! Not to put too fine a point on it, this is a marvellous recording.'

 

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In Autumn. Lyric Suite, etc 

WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne / Eivind Aadland 

(Audite)

'The first two discs in this ‘Complete Symphonic Works’ series were outstanding. This third is wholly exceptional. The presence of the overture In Autumn and the Old Norwegian Romance with Variations gives the programme a Beechamesque feel. But Aadland and his astonishingly well-integrated German ensemble – by this I mean that they are guided into a natural-sounding Nordic style – need fear nothing by way of competition, not even from the RPO’s dream woodwind section...' Read the review

 

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And one more – if you can find it!

Piano Concerto

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli pf New Philharmonia Orchestra / Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos

(BBC Legends)

'A sense of joyous rhapsody buoys up Michelangeli’s playing from first note to last, yet everything is founded on a bedrock of high intelligence, taste and natural authority. And I nearly forgot to mention the fabulous tone-colours he draws from the instrument. His slow movement is by turns balmy and ecstatic, and the finale has terrific drive. Scarcely a phrase that does not sound newly minted; never a note that sounds contrived or unspontaneous. And the virtuosity … ! If your hair is not standing on end in the finale’s coda I suggest an urgent medical check-up. Forget the boxy recording and the hissy background. This is a performance that entirely merits the hysterical cheers that greet it...' Read the review

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Composer: 

Top 10 Ives recordings

Gramophone Thu 21st April 2016

Many of Ives's works present unique challenges for the performers brave and dedicated enough to tackle them, let alone commit them to disc. Here are some of the finest Ives recordings in the catalogue...

Top 10 Ives recordings
Top 10 Ives recordings

Psalms

Kay Johannsen org SWR Vocal Ensemble Stuttgart / Marcus Creed

(Hänssler Classic)

'These 10 psalms are not first recordings but most of them have dropped out of the catalogue, so this is largely unknown Ives. This fine collection is a revelation in performances like these from the outstanding Stuttgart choir under its British conductor...' Read the review

 

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Symphony No 2. The Unanswered Question

New York Philharmonic Orchestra / Leonard Bernstein

(DG)

'This wonderful symphony begins sounding for all the world as though it longs to be Brahms's Second or Dvořák's Eighth. The old European traditions roll out in well-nourished strings and text-book counterpoints; here and there a hint of New England rural is tempered with a little Johann Sebastian; but only when ''Columbia, Gem of the Ocean'' pops up in the horns do we know we are well and truly in Ives country. Bernstein makes a point of playing it like Brahms, with bows richly drawn in appreciation – a thanksgiving hymn from old America. He conducted the scandalously belated premiere back in 1951 and is known to love it more than any other American symphony...' Read the review

 

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‘A Song - For Anything’

Gerald Finley bar Julius Drake pf

(Hyperion)

'Gerald Finley has made many excellent records and, as far as I can recall, never a poor or indifferent one. But if he is not by this time universally recognised as a singer of the front rank, this should leave no doubt of it. These songs can encourage at one extreme a rough declamatory style and at the other an almost voiceless intimacy. Without in any way underplaying, Finley is always essentially a singer – his tone and command of the singing line are a pleasure in themselves. But he also has the absolute mastery of the composer’s idioms and, with Julius Drake, his fearless and totally committed pianist, the technical, virtuosic skills to realise his intentions with complete conviction of naturalness...' Read the review

 

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Piano Works and Songs

Susan Graham mez Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf

(Warner Classics)

'Ives’s imagination – his rampant theatricality – should have made for great operas. Instead he wrote songs: capsule dramas laid out not in scenes or acts but moments in time. Susan Graham inhabits 17 such moments – nostalgic (‘Songs my mother taught me’), visionary (‘A sound of distant horn’), cryptic (‘Soliloquy’), brutal (‘1, 2, 3’), expectant (‘Thoreau’) – and the feminine and masculine qualities of her voice, to say nothing of her musical sensibility, easily encompass the ‘expectancy and ecstasy’ promised by the song ‘Memories’ – which appropriately enough recalls her (and others like her) as a little girl ‘sitting in the opera house’. Aimard is again a one-man band. Almost literally so in ‘The Circus Band’. When Graham shouts ‘hear the trombones’, you really do...' Read the review

 

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Violin Sonatas

Curt Thompson vn Rodney Waters pf

Naxos

'In reviewing ECM’s Hansheinz Schneeberger and Daniel Cholette, I indicated problems that European performers can have with Ives. Compared with Gregory Fulkerson and Robert Shannon they failed to swing and their recorded sound is unattractive. There’s no problem with the Texan-born Curt Thompson, who has delved deeply into Ives in a doctoral thesis on these sonatas. He and Rodney Waters make an excellent duo...' Read the review

 

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'Charles Ives - An American Journey'

Thomas Hampson bar San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus / Michael Tilson Thomas

(RCA)

'If anyone has a hot­line to the cortex of Ives’s imagination‚ it is Michael Tilson Thomas. The programme he has devised here is not so much a journey‚ more a stream of consciousness through the hinterlands of Ives Americana. An alternative American dream. It’s about the things that mattered to Ives: the times‚ places‚ events that fashioned the nation and enabled it to find its own way. It’s a landscape of ballad songs and snatches‚ of hymns‚ marches‚ tall tales and short orders‚ assembled exactly as the man remem­bered them and entirely in keeping with the chaotic comedy of life. But above all‚ it’s about the spirit within us all – great and small...' Read the review

 

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Concord Sonata

Philip Mead pf

(Metier)

'Philip Mead’s performance is loud, rude and jammed with idiosyncratic corners. Charles Ives would have been hugely appreciative and admiring...'

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

 

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Three Orchestral Sets

Malmo Chamber Chorus; Malmö Symphony Orchestra / James Sinclair

(Naxos)

'The novelty here is the Third Set. The first two movements come from sketches edited by David Gray Porter. The opening Andante has a structure similar to Central Park in the Dark with typical Ives chords and a texture building to a crisis with something left hanging softly at the end. The second movement is called “During Camp Meetin’ Week: One Secular Afternoon”. This again is Ives’s idiosyncratic territory with lots of quotations including “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” twice and a four-part hymn about the Day of Judgement – not so secular after all?...' Read the review

 

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Central Park in the Dark. Three Places in New England, etc

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra / Sir Andrew Davis

(Chandos)

'The two early Ives symphonies recorded by the same team (5/15) are relatively plain sailing compared with some of these pieces, which are just as shocking as they always have been. I mean the great blasts of glorious frenzy in Central Park in the Dark; ‘The Fourth of July’; and the second and third movements of Three Places in New England, all written – amazingly – in the early years of the last century. The difference between the many recordings depends on which elements of an overcrowded texture are allowed to dominate. For example, Ives quotes his own Country Band March in ‘Putnam’s Camp’ – it’s first heard early on in the strings, but at the last climax, with everything else going on as well, it’s less prominent with the Melbourne performance than in some. That’s all part of the richness of the Ives experience...' Read the review

 

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Symphony No 4

Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony Chorale / Ludovic Morlot

(Seattle Symphony Media)

'From the start of the Fourth Symphony, the Seattle engineers raise the piano in the mix, its basso profundo low register punching above its weight as expressionistic strings swarm. And you begin to get an inkling of the symphony’s vistas and perspectives: solo strings, then flute, join the piano in invoking the chamber music sections of the Concord Sonata as the orchestra and chorus muscle up the volume. The second movement is especially fine, the ragtime rhythmic energy of the opening frogmarched towards thunderous burn-out as Morlot keeps subliminal details ticking over: the microtonal skid of a honky-tonk piano shyly peeks above the orchestral frame before dragging a solo violin into its orbit, all abruptly snuffed out by a loud-mouthed, raucous marching band...' Read the review

 

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Explore Charles Ives's life and music...

Charles Ives: lonely American giant

'He plunged ahead solely on the basis of his ear, his stamina, his conviction, his talent and his need to create' (John McClure, Gramophone, April 1967)... Read more

Gramophone Collection: Charles Ives's Concord Sonata

Charles Ives left his Concord Sonata for solo piano unfinished for a reason. But what that reason was remains unclear – which, says Philip Clark, presents a challenge to pianists who tackle the work on record... Read more

Composer: 

Top 10 Rachmaninov recordings

Gramophone Fri 8th April 2016

There are many truly great recordings of Rachmaninov's passionate music, but these 10 recordings would grace any classical collection

Top 10 Rachmaninov recordings
Top 10 Rachmaninov recordings

Piano Concerto No 2

Krystian Zimerman pf Boston SO / Seiji Ozawa

'A romantic to his fingertips, Zimerman inflects one familiar theme after another with a yearning, bittersweet intensity that he equates in his interview with first love. Hear him at 6'52" and ask yourself when you last heard this melody played with such a rapt sense of inwardness. Every page is alive with a sense of wonder at Rachmaninov’s genius. Seiji Ozawa and the Boston orchestra are ideal partners and DG’s sound and balance are fully worthy of this memorable release...' Read the review

 

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Symphony No 2

 

London Symphony Orchestra / André Previn

'It has to be André Previn, whose rehabilitation of this symphony ranks among his most enduring contributions to our musical life.'

Read Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 2 – which recording is best?

 

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Preludes

Steven Osborne pf

'It’s all too easy to coarsen Rachmaninov’s melodic genius with an overtly applied emotionalism, its clearly drawn lines becoming smudged. But Osborne conveys both the monumentality of these pieces, even the most fleeting, and their very human qualities. It’s rare to find the balance so acutely achieved – with Ashkenazy, Donohoe and Richter tending more towards the former, Lympany and Shelley (Hyperion) towards the latter. The composer himself, of course, knew how to achieve that equilibrium, but then he had a head start.' Read the review

 

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Piano Concerto No 3

Vladimir Ashkenazy pf LSO / André Previn

'What nobility of feeling and what dark regions of the imagination he relishes and explores in page after page of the Third Concerto in particular. Significantly his opening is a very moderate Allegro ma non tanto, later allowing him an expansiveness and imaginative scope hard to find in other more ‘driven’ or hectic performances. His rubato, his sense of the music’s emotional ebb and flow, is as natural as it is distinctive and his way of easing from one idea to another (the first movement Allegro – Tempo precedent ma un poco piu mosso) shows him at his most intimately and romantically responsive...' Read the review

 

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The Bells

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

'Such a small thing as being able to appreciate the timbre of the piano in the first movement makes all the difference, emphasising the fact that Rachmaninov had the skill and imagination to conjure up the sonority of bells with little recourse to bells themselves. The performance is strong on mood, individual movements probingly characterised and eloquently drawn together as a structural entity...' Read the review

 

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Piano Sonata No 2

Steven Osborne pf

'This is Osborne’s own conflation of Rachmaninov’s two versions plus some borrowings from Horowitz’s composer-sanctioned version. Osborne justifies it as ‘a natural extension of the interpretative process’. So, does it convince? In a word, yes. What comes across most winningly is the ebb and flow of the work: the more inward passages are allowed to breathe; the extrovert ones are absolutely fiery. It’s not a work that could ever be summed up by a single interpretation: Horowitz is of course essential; so too, I would argue, is Kocsis. And the list could go on. But this is another terrific addition to the shelvesy' Read the review

 

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The Miserly Knight

Soloists; BBC PO / Gianandrea Noseda

'Rachmaninov decided in The Miserly Knight to set almost exactly word-for-word a prose poem-cum-play by Pushkin, one of his so-called “little tragedies”. Its central panel is a long monologue for the Baron (the Miserly Knight of the title), a role conceived with Chaliapin in mind and here sung with commanding presence and rich, malleable tone by Ildar Abdrazakov as he drools over his wealth and the cruel ways in which it has been amassed. He is well matched by, and contrasted with, the passionate tenor of Misha Didyk as his resentful son, Albert, and by the sly, ingratiating characterisation of the Moneylender by tenor Peter Bronder. Orchestral atmosphere, backed by a spectrum of colour comparable to that of the Second Symphony, is compellingly established by Noseda, whose theatrical instincts also reflect and enhance the opera’s dramatic thrust...' Read the review

 

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Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

Daniil Trifonov pf Philadelphia Orchestra / Yannick Nézet-Séguin

'The opening bars tell you this is going to be a good ‘Pag Rhap’. As things turn out, it is a great one, up there with the very best. That includes the indispensable benchmark recording with the composer and the same orchestra made in 1934, just six weeks after they had given the premiere under Leopold Stokowski. Let’s deal first with DG’s sound: in the Rhapsody it is sumptuous, full-bodied and realistic, with a near-perfect balance between piano and orchestra. The Philadelphia’s silky strings and characterful woodwind are a joy, while the percussion department is suitably punchy without being overcooked.' Read the review

 

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Etudes-tableaux, Op 39

Nikolai Lugansky pf

'A pianist who has sometimes shrouded his mastery in detachment, he is here at his most audacious, willing to step outside convention and declaim Rachmaninov’s glory to the heavens. There is nothing reserved in what is surely the most freely expressive, personal and, at the climax, seething performance on record of No 2. No 3 is of a shot-from-guns virtuosity that makes you cry out like Miranda in The Tempest: "If by your art, my dearest father, you have put the wild waters in this roar, allay them."'

Read Rachmaninov's Etudes-tableaux, Op 39 – which recording should you buy?

 

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Vespers, 'All-Night Vigil'

Latvian Radio Choir / Sigvards Kļava

'Despite a wide dynamic range (which never sounds congested or harsh), the balance remains transparent. There is a wonderfully kaleidoscopic (though carefully graded) palette of vocal colours throughout, with plenty of sonorous bloom for those celebrated deep bass notes. Praise also goes to the tenors, whose highest notes sound so effortlessly sweet and fluid, and to the upper voices, who bring out the tolling bells in the Nunc dimittis most beautifully...' Read the review

 

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Composer: 

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