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Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Handel recordings available
Welcome to Gramophone's guide to the 50 greatest Handel recordings, which you can explore along with our similar guides to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and Chopin. Included here are Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs from Trevor Pinnock, John Butt, Richard Egarr and Roberta Invernizzi, and many more. We have included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 45,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to the Database, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe.
All of these lists are, of course, subjective, but every recording here has received the approval of Gramophone's critics and are artistic and musical benchmarks. So if you want to hear Handel performance at its best, this list is the perfect place to start.
Organ Concertos, Op 7
Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr hpd
Richard Egarr and the AAM have prepared their own performing edition of Handel’s Op 7 Organ Concertos, which has involved spontaneously creating ad libitum passages, or choosing other bits of Handel for the slow movements. The rich-sounding forces comprise 18 players, including oboes and bassoons; both their playing and Egarr’s solo contributions are of an impeccably high order.
Taking his cue from Charles Burney’s eyewitness accounts of Handel’s own performances, Egarr takes a bold, improvisatory approach to the concertos. The allegro movements are enlivened by rapid keyboard flourishes, liberal ornamentation (especially during repeats of whole sections) and delightful variants to the basic printed rhythms in the manner of French Baroque composers. Particularly startling is the opening bitonal chord cluster of the A major Concerto, Op 7 No 2; Egarr acknowledges his debt to the 17th/18th-century writer Roger North for this daring harmonic gesture. On a lighter note, listeners will enjoy all the cuckoo calls plus other birdsong motifs that crop up during the Cuckoo and the Nightingale Concerto in F.
Throughout the two CDs, tempi are beautifully judged, with a degree of flexibility and an avoidance of excessive speeds in the fast movements. In the three works for solo harpsichord, Egarr’s calm, measured pacing allows Handel’s music to flow clearly and effortlessly. The opportunity to hear the splendid Chaconne in G, HWV442, is highly rewarding; and, as Egarr points out, it uses the same bass-line and harmonic progression as the first eight bars of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
Egarr’s booklet-notes and a lovely collection of paintings featuring 18th-century London make for a booklet whose excellence matches that of the distinguished music-making. The recording is highly detailed – possibly a bit too close-up for some listeners. Full marks to Egarr for his choice of the 1998 Handel House Museum organ for the concertos; this modern British instrument is a copy of the type of chamber organ known to Handel. This is a superb set from all concerned.
Concerti grossi, Op 3. Sonata a cinque, HWV288
Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr
Richard Egarr suggests that Handel might have had more of a hand in the compilation of Op 3 than hitherto identified. Fresh speculation is a healthy opportunity to reconsider matters but the truly significant aspect of this recording is the new attention brought to Handel’s charming music. It is hard to think of a lovelier moment in all of Handel’s orchestral works than the spellbinding cellos interweaving under a plaintive solo oboe in the Largo of No 2. Likewise, the immense personality of the solo organ runs during the finale of No 6 is a potently precocious display of Handel’s genius at the keyboard. All such moments come across with vitality and passion.
The AAM has never committed Op 3 to disc before: under Egarr they sound as good as ever, perhaps even reinvigorated and a few degrees sparkier. These are for the most part lively performances full of fizzy finesse. There are several fine recordings that find a little more warmth, sentimentality and intimacy in the music, although the energetic brilliance so prominent in the AAM’s crisply athletic playing has its own rewards. The musicians are unanimously immersed in the intricacies of the music, but special mention must be made of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk’s dazzling contribution to the dynamic finale of the ‘Sonata a cinque’ (a sort of violin concerto that Handel presumably composed for Corelli in Rome in about 1707).
Concerti grossi, Op 6
Avison Ensemble / Pavlo Beznosiuk vn
The Newcastle-based Avison Ensemble, under the experienced direction of violinist Pavlo Beznosiuk, ranks alongside the best for musicianship, taste and style. It’s constituted on a smaller scale than Handel’s orchestra would have been, especially in its lower instruments; also there are no bassoons or lute in the continuo group, and only one harpsichord instead of Handel’s usual two. This is no different to other ‘historically informed’ recordings of Op 6 and need not be considered an obstacle to enjoyment. The optional oboe parts provided by Handel for a few of the concertos are omitted reasonably here.
Beznosiuk is an excellent judge of textures and tempi, and his leadership of the concertino group is authoritative and nuanced. Softly balanced cadences throughout the set are highly effective, and in fast music the interplay between concertino and ripienists is impeccable. The gutsier forthright music is played crisply and sweetly.
The music-making rarely veers towards becoming precious: phrases in the opening Largo of No 7 persistently taper off and diminish the lyrical pull of Handel’s writing, and, in the same concerto, the exclusion of harpsichord in favour of a barely audible organ seems odd considering the trouble Handel took over supplying detailed figured bass; the reduced vivacity also stifles the wittiness of the concluding Hornpipe. The concluding Gigue of No 9 is controlled and deliberate, where one might have hoped for swagger and panache. However, in the Tenth Concerto, the introspective melancholy of the Lento and the sudden mood-swings of the penultimate Allegro are impressive. No 11 has exuberance in its opening Andante larghetto, e staccato and its finale is thrillingly fleet-footed. The Avison Ensemble’s set may well remain rewarding long after the novelties of more precocious approaches have faded.
Simon Standage, Elizabeth Wilcock vns The English Concert / Trevor Pinnock hpd
It’s unlikely that George I ever witnessed performances that live up to this one. They are sparkling, tempi are well judged and there’s a truly majestic sweep to the opening F major French overture. That gets things off to a fine start but what follows is no less compelling, with some notably fine woodwind-playing.
In the D major music it’s the brass department that steals the show and here, horns and trumpets acquit themselves with distinction. Archiv has achieved a particularly satisfying sound in which all strands of the orchestral texture can be heard with clarity. In this suite the ceremonial atmosphere comes over particularly well, with resonant brass-playing complemented by crisply articulated oboes.
The G major pieces are quite different from those in the previous groups, being lighter in texture and more closely dance-orientated. They are among the most engaging in the Water Music and especially, perhaps, the two little ‘country dances’, the boisterous character of which Pinnock captures nicely.
Music for the Royal Fireworks. Concerti per due cori, HWV332-334
Ensemble Zefiro / Alfredo Bernardini
The Italian ensemble Zefiro, directed by oboist Alfredo Bernardini, specialise in 18th-century music that gives prominence towards wind instruments. This lends itself to theMusic for the Royal Fireworks. Zefiro play the grand Overture with the perfect synthesis of splendour and dance-like charisma (too many versions possess too little of the latter). ‘La Réjouissance’ trips along lightly without a hint of clumsiness, but still has ample juicy magnificence. Theis zesty and fluid performance is a welcome change from stodgy readings in which everything is hammered home mercilessly. Zefiro bring a marvellous sense of light and shade to this music. Maybe Bernardini’s sparkling and communicative approach would have been too subtle for the great British outdoors in 1749 but it is curious that this beautifully engineered recording was made outside in the cloisters of a former Jesuit college in Sicily.
Zefiro also perform all three of the Concerti per due cori (1747-48) that Handel arranged for orchestra and two ‘choirs’ of woodwind and brass. These were intended as entr’actes in oratorio concerts, and it is fun to play ‘name that tune’. These shapely performances are phrased and paced to perfection, and exploit an enjoyable range of instrumental colours (whether oboe trios or bucolic horns, almost everything here feels right). This is one of the most enjoyable discs of Handel’s orchestral music in a long time.
Solo Sonatas, Op 1
Academy of Ancient Music (Rachel Brown fl/rec Frank de Bruine ob Pavlo Beznosiuk vn) / Richard Egarr hpd
John Walsh senior’s compilation of Handel’s sonatas for solo instrument and basso continuo (first printed c1730 and retrospectively known as Op 1) is a horrible mess from a scholarly perspective. Walsh cobbled together the collection, often printing sonatas for the wrong instrument, in the wrong key, or with some wrong movements; some sonatas are clearly not even composed by Handel. In his booklet essay, Richard Egarr does an entertaining job of conveying the confusing history and contents of ‘Op 1’.
Happily, there can be few qualms about the assured music-making. Rubato in slow movements sometimes disturbs the rhythmic pulse of Handel’s writing but otherwise the playing of the three principals of the Academy of Ancient Music sparkles, charms and soothes. Rachel Brown’s recorder-playing is sweetly elegiac in leisurely music, and subtle yet playful in quicker movements (the conclusion of HWV369); likewise, Brown’s flute-playing is gently conversational, and the unison opening of the Allegro in HWV363b is typical of the impressive understanding between Egarr and his soloists. Pavlo Beznosiuk’s contributions are by turns tender and refined. The violinist receives the four sonatas that were clearly not by Handel but plays them gracefully enough for issues of attribution to be temporarily forgotten. Frank de Bruine’s fluent oboe-playing is a particular delight. Egarr has dispensed with cello doubling the bass-line of the keyboard accompaniments; his harpsichord realisations give sensitive support to the soloist in the limelight. The occasional flamboyant keyboard passages have plenty of crispness and character but are light enough to avoid dogmatically forcing the soloists to fight for attention.
Trio Sonatas – Op 2 HWV386-91; Op 5 HWV396-402
Academy of Ancient Music (Rachel Brown fl/rec Pavlo Beznosiuk, Rodolfo Richter vns Joseph Crouch vc) / Richard Egarr hpd
The Academy of Ancient Music’s project to record all of Handel’s works with opus numbers reaches its completion with this double-bill of 13 trio sonatas. Most are played by two violins (Pavlo Beznosiuk and Rodolfo Richter) and basso continuo (Joseph Crouch and Richard Egarr). The Op 2 set features two sonatas that specify slightly different scoring: flute in HWV386 and recorder in HWV389 (both played by Rachel Brown).
The interplay between the AAM is Baroque chamber-playing of the very highest order: sincerely conversational, emotive and finely nuanced. Egarr and Crouch are an outstanding continuo team, providing attentive yet uncluttered support to the two upper instruments. Brown and Beznosiuk play together with touching eloquence in the Largoof HWV386 and excel in the jaunty jig that concludes HWV389. Beznosiuk and Richter interweave to gorgeous effect in the Largo of HWV387. On a few occasions the slower music could perhaps have been trusted to play itself with a more literal rhythmical pulse, and sometimes things seem precious if compared to the best alternative recordings, but of course this may also be an unavoidable consequence of listening to an entire collection of works that were never designed by the composer to be sampled together in one long sitting.
Barthold Kuijken fl Wieland Kuijken va da gamba Robert Kohnen hpd
In this recording of solo ﬂute sonatas, Barthold Kuijken plays pieces unquestionably by Handel as well as others over which doubt concerning his authorship has been cast in varying degrees. Certainly not all the pieces here were conceived for transverse ﬂute – there are earlier versions of HWV363b and 367b, for example, for oboe and treble recorder, respectively; but we can well imagine that in Handel’s day most, if not all, of these delightful sonatas were regarded among instrumentalists as more-or-less common property. Barthold Kuijken, with his eldest brother Wieland and Robert Kohnen, gives graceful and stylish performances. Kuijken is skilful in matters of ornamentation and is often adventurous, though invariably within the bounds of good taste. Dance movements are brisk and sprightly though he’s careful to preserve their poise, and phrases are crisply articulated. This is of especial beneﬁt to movements such as the lively Vivace of the B minor Sonata (HWV367b) which can proceed rather aimlessly when too legato an approach is favoured; and the virtuosity of these players pays off in the Presto (Furioso) movement that follows. In short, this is a delightful disc which should please both Handelians and most lovers of Baroque chamber music.
Pamela Thorby rec Richard Egarr hpd/org
Pamela Thorby, a regular member of the Palladian Ensemble, demonstrates versatility and virtuosity beyond question and is imaginatively accompanied by Richard Egarr, who also contributes a sparkling account of the Harpsichord Suite in E major. The recording was made from facsimiles of the autograph manuscripts, and the performances are commensurately vivid and immediate. One feels constantly gripped by the music, as if every single note matters.
There’s no compulsive need for a cello on the basso continuo part, and on this occasion Thorby and Egarr manage perfectly well without one. Egarr uses a chamber organ on some of the sonatas, and although it’s not historically likely in Handel’s chamber sonatas, its musical effect is pleasing, and increases textural variety while removing the threat of monotony across 74 minutes of intense brilliance.
Keyboard Suites – in F; in D minor; in E. Chaconne in G
Murray Perahia pf
In his projection of line, mass and colour, Perahia makes intelligent acknowledgement of the fact that none of this is piano music, but when it comes to communicating the forceful effects and the brilliance and readiness of finger for which these two great player-composers were renowned, inhibitions are thrown to the wind. Good! Nothing a pianist does in the Harmonious Blacksmith Variations in Handel’s E major Suite or the Air and Variations of the D minor Suite could surpass in vivacity and cumulative excitement what the expert harpsichordist commands, and you could say the same of Scarlatti’s D major Sonata, Kk29, but Perahia is extraordinarily successful in translating these with the daredevil ‘edge’ they must have. Faster and yet faster! In the Handel (more than in the Scarlatti) his velocity may strike you as overdone but one can see the sense of it. It’s quite big playing throughout, yet not inflated. Admirable is the way the piano is addressed, with the keys touched rather than struck, and a sense conveyed that the music is coming to us through the tips of the fingers rather than the hammers of the instrument. While producing streams of beautifully moulded and inflected sound, Perahia is a wizard at making you forget the percussive nature of the apparatus. There are movements in the Handel where the musical qualities are dependent on instrumental sound, or contrasts of sound, which the piano just can’t convincingly imitate. And in some of the Scarlatti one might have reservations about Perahia’s tendency to idealise, to soften outlines and to make the bite less incisive.
Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Chopin recordings available
Our lists of the 50 greatest Mozart, Beethoven and Bach recordings have proved phenomenally successful, and so we are proud to present 50 of the finest recordings of Chopin's music. Included here are Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs from Rubinstein, Argerich, Pollini, Perahia, Cortot, Grosvenor, and many more. We have included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 45,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to the Database, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe. All of these lists are, of course, subjective, but every recording here has recieved the approval of Gramophone's critics and are artistic and musical benchmarks. If you want to hear Chopin performance at its best, this list is the perfect place to start.
Martha Argerich pf Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Charles Dutoit
Martha Argerich’s first commercially released recordings of the Chopin concertos were for DG; No 1 in 1968, No 2 in 1978. Here she revisits both concertos and offers an act of re-creative daring, of an alternating reverie and passion that flashes fire with a thousand different lights. Indeed, her earlier performances are infinitely less witty, personal and eruptive, less inclined to explore, albeit with the most spontaneous caprice and insouciance, so many new facets, angles and possibilities. Now, everything is accomplished without a care for studios and microphones, and with a degree of involvement that suggests an increase rather than a diminution of her love for these works. The recordings are impressively natural and if Dutoit occasionally seems awed if not cowed into anonymity by his soloist (the opening tuttis to the slow movements of both concertos are less memorable than they should be) he sets off Argerich’s charisma to an exceptional degree. Argerich’s light burns brighter than ever. Rarely in their entire history have the Chopin concertos received performances of a more teasing allure, brilliance and idiosyncrasy.
Eldar Nebolsin pf Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra / Antoni Wit
(Naxos - 2 Vols)
A welcome change from the standard coupling of the two concertos, this programme is a distinguished addition to the bicentennial celebrations, an all-Polish affair with the exception of its Uzbek soloist. It is salutary to be reminded that the Fantasia and Krakowiak were composed when Chopin was still a teenager (1828). The Concerto No 2 was written a year later with Concerto No 1, confusingly, following a year after that. Chopin’s orchestration, so frequently criticised and occasionally revamped by others, serves its purpose more than adequately and is handled here with workmanlike authority by Wit and his players, placed in an acoustic which borders on the roomy.
But the piano’s the thing and Nebolsin proves himself a scintillating and persuasive Chopinist, alive to every detail and, indeed, subtly highlighting a few that are generally ignored. No 1’s Rondo is the highlight of the disc, nonchalantly fleet-fingered, beautifully phrased and conveying a real joy of shared music-making. The Fantasia and Krakowiak are no less successful.
Having enjoyed Nebolsin and his colleagues so much in the First Concerto it’s good to report that the second volume lives up to its predecessor in every way, and the slight reservations about the acoustic and workmanlike accompaniment seem marginal considerations here. In fact, an arbitrary comparison with the Argerich/Dutoit EMI recording (see above) reveals far cleaner textual details and a more integrated keyboard and orchestral relationship. Tempi are judged to a nicety and, once again, in the finale of the concerto, Nebolsin’s insouciant playfulness is a real delight. The rarely recorded Là ci darem Variations are welded into a cohesive whole in what is a new benchmark recording (try the final pages of the Alla polacca variation, with Nebolsin’s left hand injecting a motoric rhythm against the non-stop right-hand semiquavers). This, Chopin’s earliest work for piano and orchestra (1827), is followed by his last (completed in 1835) to round off in exuberant high spirits a highly recommended disc.
Murray Perahia pf Israel Philharmonic Orchestra / Zubin Mehta
Perahia has never made any secret of his liking for the ‘inspirational heat-of-the-moment’ of a live performance as opposed to a studio recording, where ‘sometimes things get tame’. As enthusiastic audience applause (discreetly rationed on the disc) makes plain, these two concertos were recorded live at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium. Whether they were subsequently ‘doctored’ we don’t know, but the finished product brings us a Perahia miraculously combining exceptional finesse with an equally exceptional urgency. In all but the finale of No 1 (where Pollini on EMI beats him by a minute) his timings throughout both works are considerably faster than most of his rivals on disc. Was this prompted by ‘inspirational heat-of-the-moment’? Or was it a deliberate attempt to come closer than others do to the surprisingly briskish metronome markings printed in the Eulenburg scores? The two slow movements are distinguished by exquisitely limpid cantabile and superfine delicacy of decorative detail while again conveying urgent undercurrents. But in a guessing game perhaps it would be the two finales that would most betray the identity of the soloist. Not only are they faster, but they are also of a more scintillating, scherzando-like lightness. The recording is first rate.
Arthur Rubinstein pf Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra / Alfred Wallenstein; NBC Symphony Orchestra / William Steinberg
(Naxos Historical mono)
Recorded 1953, 1946
Mercifully uncut, unlike Rubinstein’s previous discs of both concertos with Barbirolli, these are astonishing performances, occasionally, particularly in the Second Concerto, content simply to astonish. Here there is an almost arrogant dismissal of all difficulties and a prima donna stance sometimes hard to square with some of Chopin’s more delicate and ornate confidences. In the scintillating coda Rubinstein takes his bravura to a spine-tingling edge, but in, for example, the Larghetto’s central storms there is a brusque, streamlined indifference to the music’s finer qualities.
In the First Concerto, while recognisably the same pianist, Rubinstein is altogether more subtle, following his characteristic exuberance and extroversion with playing of a rapt magic and delicacy. The music may be sent smartly on its way by both conductor and soloist, but the patrician ease, nonchalant glitter and authority of Rubinstein’s playing are uniquely his to command. These are both extraordinary performances by an extraordinary pianist, though of the two, the First Concerto is the more affecting. Mark Obert-Thorn’s restoration of the 1953 sound is a model of remastery though even he cannot make the 1946 Second Concerto sound less than cramped.
Piano Concerto No 1. Ballade in G minor, Op 23. Nocturnes. Polonaise No 6, ‘Heroic’
Maurizio Pollini pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Paul Kletzki
Recorded 1960, 1968
This disc is a classic. The concerto was recorded shortly after the 18-year-old pianist’s victory at the Warsaw competition in 1959. Nowadays we might expect a wider dynamic range to allow greater power in the first movement’s tuttis but in all other respects the recording completely belies its age, with a near-perfect balance between soloist and orchestra. This is very much Pollini’s disc, just as the First Concerto is very much the soloist’s show, but effacing as the accompaniment is, Pollini’s keyboard miracles of poetry and refinement could not have been achieved without one of the most characterful and responsive accounts of that accompaniment ever committed to tape. The expressive range of the Philharmonia on top form under Kletzki is exceptional, as is the accord between soloist and conductor in phrasing and shading. The solo items are a further reminder of Pollini’s effortless bravura and aristocratic poise.
Piano Concerto No 1. Four Ballades. Barcarolle. Nocturnes. Preludes. Waltz No 14
Friedrich Gulda pf London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Adrian Boult
Here in all his glory is Friedrich Gulda the ultimate maverick pianist, yet beneath his determined assault on what he saw as the stuffy conventions of the music world (the Viennese world in particular) lay a pianist of genius aptly described by Martha Argerich, his one-time protégée, as ‘the most extraordinary and brilliant man I ever met’.
Certainly all the live performances on these discs create a towering tribute to Chopin. Forever the nonconformist, Gulda may sometimes be wilful and irascible but he is never less than mesmeric and fascinating. Time and again he casts a novel and intense light on even the most familiar phrase, making you hang on every note. Try Prelude No 14 for a virtuoso savagery beyond the world of other more ‘civilised’ pianists, or No 13 where Gulda’s rapture makes the music stretch seemingly to infinity. Again there may be moments in the Ballades and Barcarolle where the playing verges on hysteria but the sheer mastery and strength are like an elemental force of nature. Even when he takes a rough hand to some of Chopin’s more intimate confessions, his way with his selection of Nocturnes creates a sense of drama and occasion light years away from more recent recordings.
The First Concerto is given in Balakirev’s touched-up version and if in the studio Gulda’s playing is more disciplined, less free-thinking, it is also of a special imaginative delicacy and engagement. The programme ends with Gulda’s own Epitaph for a Love, a strange mixed-up jazz effusion that includes some very odd vocals in Viennese dialect and a phantom reference to Chopin’s C minor Prelude. The pianist’s son, Paul Gulda, writes a moving and informative essay clarifying much of his father’s complexity and telling us, perhaps not surprisingly, that Alfred Cortot was among his chief musical idols.
Cello Sonata. Etude, Op 10 No 6
Raphael Wallfisch vc John York pf
The performance of the Chopin Sonata is unusually successful. One is often conscious in this work of a mismatch between the characteristic elaboration of the piano part and the writing for cello, generally more plain and unadorned, but Raphael Wallfisch’s eloquence disposes of any problem; the two instruments, each with its distinctive role, balance one another perfectly. There’s an air of spontaneity, yet the expressive weight of each phrase is carefully considered, by York as well as by Wallfisch, giving the whole work a powerful sense of unity.
York and Wallfisch adopt a no-holds-barred approach to the ultra-romantic Szymanowski, a successful transcription of his early Violin Sonata. Their grand gestures carry complete conviction and sweep us along, even over the finale’s obsessive repetitions.
Simon Laks had already settled in Paris when he wrote his 1932 Cello Sonata. There are echoes of Les Six, Stravinsky and Ravel, whose G major Violin Sonata surely provided the model for the languid, bluesy middle movement. It’s a deftly composed, attractively varied work and, as with the other items, the performance is exemplary.
Cello Sonata. Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C
Mstislav Rostropovich vc Martha Argerich pf
The recording by Paul Tortelier and Aldo Ciccolini of the last work Chopin published (Paris, 1847), which they couple with Rachmaninov's Sonata, has been a favourite of mine since it appeared. But I am at last almost persuaded that it has been supplanted. In fact, both that performance and this one by Mstislav Rostropovich and Martha Argerich are of strongly marked character, acutely, though differently, responsive to the music's every inflection, and both provide deep satisfactions. The Tortelier recording is somewhat warmer, the separation between the instruments better defined; yet this recording is excellent also.
A lesser known Chopin work for cello and piano is the Introduction and Polonaise brillante, Op 3 (though it is not so little known as his Grand Duo on themes from Meyerbeer's Robert Ie Diable). He wrote the Polonaise in October 1829, adding a touching Introduction the following July. This new performance is easily the best I have ever heard and one particularly enjoys the counterpoint of slow cello and fast piano, of ardent lyricism and exuberant virtuosity. This is altogether a recording of magnificent playing.
Piano Sonatas Nos 2 & 3. Scherzo No 3
Martha Argerich pf
Recorded 1975, 1967, 1961
Here, simply and assuredly, is one of the most magisterial talents in the entire history of piano playing. She’s hardly a comfortable companion, confirming your preconceptions. Indeed, she sets your heart and mind reeling so that you positively cry out for respite from her dazzling and super-sensitive enquiry. But she’s surely a great musician first and a great pianist second. From her, Chopin is hardly the most balanced or classically biased of the Romantics. She can tear all complacency aside. How she keeps you on the qui vive in the Second and Third Sonatas. Is the Funeral March too brisk, an expression of sadness for the death of a distant relative rather than grief for a nation? Is the delicate rhythmic play at the heart of the Third Sonata’s Scherzo virtually spun out of existence? Such qualms or queries tend to be whirled into extinction by more significant felicities. Who but Argerich, with her subtle half-pedalling, could conjure so baleful and macabre a picture of ‘winds whistling over graveyards’ in the Second Sonata’s finale, or achieve such heart-stopping exultance in the final pages of the Third Sonata (this performance is early Argerich with a vengeance, alive with a nervous brio). And if her free spirit leaves us tantalised, thirsting for Chopin’s First, Second and Fourth Scherzos as well as his Third, for example, she has also left us overwhelmingly enriched, forever in her debt.
Piano Sonata No 2. Ballade No 2. Mazurkas Nos 22-25. Waltzes Nos 2-4. Impromptu No 2
Maurizio Pollini pf
The programme embraces Chopin’s Opp 33‑38 with the exception of the two Nocturnes, Op 37, though they’re not played in chronological order. Pollini begins with a magnificent account of the Ballade No 2, the maelstrom that erupts after the pastoral first page sounding like a howl of despair. The four Mazurkas, Op 33, and three Waltzes, Op 34, not only form a contrast to the Ballade but are themselves contrasted with each other. The F sharp major Impromptu, almost a mini-ballade, is heard in another refined account, Pollini relishing the leggiero jeu perlé scale passagework at the close. In the Second Sonata, Pollini unites what Schumann called ‘four of [Chopin’s] wildest children’ into a family, a feat managed by few pianists, the first movement (with a da capo repeat) leading quite naturally into the Scherzo and so on.
It’d be difficult for Pollini to produce an ugly sound (and he doesn’t here), but while the piano is captured from a slight distance (say the front row of the stalls), the pianist’s frequent nasal intakes of breath are recorded in close-up.
Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Mozart recordings available
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. You can also explore similar '50 greatest recordings' articles for Beethoven, Handel, JS Bach and Chopin.
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
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)
Dennis Brain hn Philharmonia Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
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.
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
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)
Complete Piano Concertos
English Chamber Orchestra / Murray Perahia pf
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.
Piano Concerto No 22
Alfred Brendel pf Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 18-22
Northern Sinfonia / Imogen Cooper pf
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)
Piano Concerto No 27. Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K365
Emil Gilels, Elena Gilels pfs Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 18 & 22
Ronald Brautigam fp Cologne Academy / Michael Alexander Willens
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 20 & 25
Martha Argerich pf Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado
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)
Lucas Jussen, Arthur Jussen pfs Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Neville Marriner
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)
Giuliano Carmignola vn Mozart Orchestra / Claudio Abbado
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)
The Gramophone guide to the finest Schubert recordings available
A warm welcome to Gramophone's guide to the 50 greatest Schubert recordings, which now joins our similar guides to the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin and Handel. As before, we've focused on Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month, Editor's Choice discs and legendary earlier recordings from the likes of Artur Schnabel, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Paul Lewis, Bryn Terfel, Ian Bostridge, Karl Böhm and many more. We have tried to give a recommendation for every major work and we have included, where possible, the complete original Gramophone reviews, which are drawn from Gramophone's Reviews Database of more than 45,000 reviews. To find out more about subscribing to the Database, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe.
The list begins with orchestral works, then moves through chamber and instrumental, and finishes with vocal. All of these lists are, of course, subjective, but every recording here has received the approval of Gramophone's critics and are artistic and musical benchmarks. So if you want to hear Schubert performance at its best, this list is the perfect place to start.
Symphonies Nos 1-6, 8 & 9
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra / Karl Böhm
(DG) Recorded 1963-71
These are marvellous performances: vibrant, clear, characterful and effortlessly well played. The recordings, too, still seem new-minted, even the Ninth, the first of the symphonies to be recorded. The Berliners’ art is the art that disguises art. Böhm never feels the need to do anything clever but just quietly sees to it that this superb orchestra plays at its best. His way with the two late symphonies is, in fact, highly sophisticated. The Unfinished begins in what seems to be a leisurely fashion but his performance of the first movement catches Schubert’s mix of lyricism and high drama with extraordinary acuity. Conversely, the second movement seems swift but brings the work full circle, with an equally extraordinary sense of calm and catharsis in the final pages. The celebrated 1963 Ninth out-Furtwänglers Furtwängler in the myriad means it uses within a single grand design to capture the symphony’s sense of danger and derring-do in addition to its lyricism, nobility and earthy Austrian charm.
In the early symphonies, Böhm’s approach is simpler-seeming and more direct. Rhythms are so finely propelled, the pulse so effortlessly sustained, the music always lands on its feet. The zest comes from the stylish Berlin string-playing; melodically, it’s the woodwinds (every one a Lieder singer) who catch the beauty of Schubert’s melodies and the skirl of the attendant descants. You won’t find yourself tiring of Böhm’s approach; he doesn’t give in to irritating idiosyncrasies (à la Harnoncourt), but ensures that the Schubertian stream is always clear to the ear and sweet to the taste.
Symphonies Nos 1-9
Academy of St Martin in the Fields / Sir Neville Marriner
Marriner's Schubert is light on its feet, full of sprung rhythms and gracefully=turned phrases. The early symphonies are a sheer delight in this cycle with some glorious playing by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. The later, great works like the Unfinished and the Great C major are also very appealing, with beautifully judged tempi and some wonderfully vivacious playing by these virtuoso musicians. In this repertoire, the competition tends to be from large symphony orchestras - BPO and Boöhm, Royal Concertgebouw and Harnoncourt, the NDRSO and Wand, to name three of the finest cycles - but Marriner's set can be confidently recommended if you respond to a more agile, 'modern' (though not 'authentic') approach.
Symphonies Nos 3, 5 & 6
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Thomas Beecham
(Warner Classics) Recorded 1955-59
Beecham was well into his seventies when he made these recordings with the Royal Philharmonic, the orchestra he had founded in 1946. His lightness of touch, his delight in the beauty of the sound he was summoning, the directness of his approach to melody and his general high spirits will all dominate our memory of these performances. But, listening again, we may be reminded that Beecham could equally well dig deep into the darker moments of these works. Schubert’s elation was rarely untroubled and the joy is often compounded by its contrast with pathos – Beecham had that balance off to a T. It should be noted that he doesn’t take all the marked repeats and he doctored some passages he considered over-repetitive. However, these recordings may also serve as a reminder of the wonderful heights of musicianship that his players achieved, as in the Trio of the Third.
String Quintet in C major, D956. String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D810 'Death and the Maiden'
Pavel Haas Quartet with Danjulo Ishizaka vc
This is good. Very good. Acclaim and the Pavel Haas Quartet are familiar bedfellows – after all, they did win Gramophone’s Record of the Year for their Dvořák two years ago. But this is their first recording that really steps into a crowded marketplace. They represent the best qualities of the Czech tradition – warmth, sonorousness, individuality, intensity; but what’s striking here is their fearless risk-taking, their fervency and the absolute confidence with which they propel you through these two masterpieces. In the Quintet they have the perfect partner in cellist Danjulo Ishizaka – and there’s no sense of a quartet plus one, which hampered the Takács Quartet’s recent reading.
Their tempi are unfailingly right to the extent that comparisons, for once, seem almost irrelevant. And the slow movement of the Quintet is aching but never emotes superficially; the way the players withdraw the sound at its close is absolutely mesmerising. The Belcea rein in the emotions to a greater degree (compare them at around nine minutes into this movement) but the Pavel Haas – with slightly more dragging, vulnerable phrasing from the first violin – are insanely memorable. They also judge transitions beautifully so that the two works unfold in a completely natural way: just sample the finale of the Quintet, at the point where the second idea, with its slightly wincing Viennese gaiety, gradually yields to the return of the troubled opening idea.
In the Quartet, too, there is much to admire: in the spectral closing minutes of the first movement; or in the slow-movement variations, where you’re held rapt as the first violin and then the cello take centre stage, and the ricocheting rhythms of the following variation – which can sound like gunshots in some performances – display a delicacy and a sense of dance. The crazed tarantella that closes the quartet is a tour de force, raw, visceral and with an emotional immediacy that is almost unbearable. Such is the intensity of the playing that by the end of the disc you, too, are quite exhausted. But that’s perhaps how it should be.
Will these highly personal interpretations stand the test of time as effectively as the slightly cooler readings from the Belcea and, in Death and the Maiden, the Takács? From this proximity it’s impossible to say, but I’d say the odds are pretty good.
String Quintet in C, D956
Hagen Quartet with Heinrich Schiff vc
By following Boccherini in using two cellos instead of two violas for his String Quintet, Schubert increased the potential for greater textural contrast. Moreover, the dichotomy between the tragic perspective and Viennese gaiety in the Quintet, so evident in much of Schubert’s greatest music, generates an especially potent dramatic force.
The Hagen Quartet’s performance of the first movement, which presents remarkably clear textural detail, is broad and expansive. The Hagen include the exposition repeat in a movement that lasts almost 20 minutes. Perhaps as a consequence, they play the Adagio second movement at an unusually fast tempo. However, through breathtaking dynamic control in the first section, passionate intensity in the second, and engaging spontaneity of the ornamentation in the final section, the Hagen achieve an expression that’s powerfully compelling.
The second half of the Quintet is often treated as a period of emotional relief from the profound concentration of the first two movements. Startlingly, the Hagen maintain the tension with violent textural and dynamic contrast in the Scherzo, and distinctively varied registral sonority in the Trio. The finale, in which the Hagen effectively balance the music’s charming Hungarian flavour with its more sinister touches, provides an arresting conclusion.
The Hagen’s account of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is polished and sensitive, and it vividly conveys the difference between Beethoven’s and Schubert’s compositional means. The Hagen’s is an outstanding disc, in which exceptional performances, that challenge the finest alternatives, are complemented by superb recording.
String Quintet. Symphony No 5
Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider vns Milton Katims va Paul Tortelier vc Prades Festival Orchestra / Pablo Casals vc
(Sony Great Performances) Recorded 1952-53
This should have an in-built fail-safe against hasty consumption, in that the interpretative ingredients are so rich, varied and unpredictable that to experience it all at once is to invite mental and emotional exhaustion. Casals is the linchpin. A charismatic presence, he embraces everything with the passion of a devoted horticulturist tending his most precious flowers, and that his love extended beyond the realms of music to mankind itself surely enriched his art even further. The most celebrated Prades recording ever is still the Stern/Casals/Tortelier reading of the Quintet, a masterful traversal graced with elastic tempi, songful phrasing, appropriate rhetorical emphases (especially in the first and second movements) and fabulous string-playing. The coupling is a ‘first release’ of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, recorded in 1953 – a warm, keenly inflected performance, jaunty in the outer movements and with an adoring, broadly paced Adagio. One presumes that it has been held from previous view only because of a few minor executant mishaps. It’s certainly well worth hearing. The transfer of the Quintet reveals itself as marginally warmer but occasionally less well-focused than previous incarnations. Still, the original was no sonic blockbuster to start with, but this shouldn’t deter you from hearing this disc.
Piano Quintet, ‘Trout’. Litanei, D343. Variations on ‘Trockne Blumen’, D802
Renaud Capuçon vn Gérard Caussé va Gautier Capuçon vc Alois Posch db Frank Braley pf
A memorable account of the Trout Quintet. This group may not project the warmth and bonhomie of the famous Curzon/Boskovsky recording (Decca), nor does it have the searching quality of the performance led by Alfred Brendel (Philips), but for verve and refinement it’s hard to beat. The happy, carefree nature of the music is captured perfectly on a beautifully clear recording; it’s especially notable how every detail of the double bass’s very spirited contribution is clearly heard yet with no sense that Alois Posch is ‘bringing out’ his part. Especially enjoyable is the Scherzo – a fast tempo but finely poised, and with a subtle, effective relaxation of the Trio – and the Variations. In Var 2 Renaud Capuçon’s figuration is so delicate that the viola melody can create a particularly strong expressive effect, and the following variation is just as magical – Frank Braley’s demisemiquavers are quite brilliant, with a lovely, silvery tone, and the bass melody has, for once, nothing elephantine about it.
The elaborate, showy set of variations on ‘Trockne Blumen’ from Die schöne Müllerin, dating from 1824, is an unhackneyed choice of filler. Played with the precision and delicacy that Capuçon and Braley bring to it, it is highly effective, though with only occasional touches of the melancholy we expect in late Schubert. After this extravagant music, the touching simplicity of the song arrangement is the more striking.
Piano Quintet, ‘Trout’. String Trios – B flat, D581; B flat, D111a
Members of the Leipzig Quartet (Andreas Seidel vn Ivo Bauer va Matthias Moosdorf vc) Christian Zacharias pf Christian Ockert db
(Dabringhaus und Grimm)
This Trout must surely be one of the very best versions of this much-recorded work. You get the impression that here was an occasion when everything ‘clicked’, giving the playing a friendly, relaxed feeling that’s just right for this carefree piece. Zacharias has the knack of making even the simplest phrase sound expressive, and the strings, without any exaggeration, produce the most beautiful tonal shadings. All five players, too, have an impressive sense of line; the phrasing and points of emphasis are balanced so that Schubert’s expansive designs are projected compellingly. If the Trout shows a Schubertian spaciousness, his one completed String Trio is unusually compact. Another distinguished feature is the florid, Spohr-like elegance of much of the violin-writing – Andreas Seidel is splendidly stylish and confident. This is another very fine performance, emphasising the predominating gentle lyricism but with plenty of vigour and panache when required. The String Trio fragment, less than two minutes, continues the same ‘let’s hear everything’ approach; it’s a sketch for what subsequently became the comparatively familiar B flat Quartet, D112.
String Quartets D703, D804, D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’ & D887
Recorded 1965, 1976-77
The Italians’ playing has freshness, affection, firm control and above all authority to a degree that no relative newcomer can match. It’s notable not only for the highest standards of ensemble, intonation and blend, but also for its imaginative insights; these attributes readily apply to the music-making on this Duo reissue,
particularly in the slow movements. Indeed, the players’ progress through the wonderful set of variations in the Andante con moto, which reveals the Death and the Maiden Quartet’s association with the famous Schubert song of that name, has unforgettable intensity.
The comparable Andante of No 13, with its lovely Rosamunde theme – which is approached here in a relaxed, leisurely manner – is held together with a similar (almost imperceptible) sureness of touch. When this work was originally issued, the first-movement exposition repeat was cut in order to get the quartet complete on to a single LP side. Here it has been restored.
Finest of all is the great G major Quartet, a work of epic scale. The first movement alone runs to nearly 23 minutes and the players’ masterly grip over the many incidents that make up the Allegro molto moderato is effortless. For an encore we’re given the Quartettsatz, a piece on a smaller scale, but here presented with a comparable hushed intensity of feeling. This, like the Death and the Maiden, was recorded in 1965 and the textures are leaner than on the others, with a fractional edge on fortissimos. Nevertheless, the ear soon adjusts when the playing is as remarkable as this. The other recordings have more body and a fine presence. The CD transfers throughout are excellent.
String Quartets – D804 & D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’
With their Decca Beethoven cycle, the Takács Quartet set a modern-day benchmark. Now, with a new record company and a replacement viola player, things look set for them to do the same for Schubert’s two most popular string quartets. These works were written in 1824, a year of despondency for Schubert, who was ill and clearly felt he was living under the shadow of death. Whereas in the Rosamunde, the underlying feeling is a tearful nostalgia, in Death and the Maiden there’s a black despair that at times gives way to anger.
The Takács have the ability to make you believe that there’s no other possible way the music should go and the strength to overturn preconceptions that comes only with the greatest performers. Tempi are invariably apt – the opening of the Rosamunde is wonderfully judged. They also have a way of revealing detail that you’d never previously noticed – in the Allegro of D810, Schubert’s sighing figure in the viola is here poignantly brought out.
But though there’s plenty of humanity in these recordings, there’s nothing sentimental about the playing; they make Schubert sound symphonic, and a sense of drama and tensile strength underlines everything, even a movement as luscious as the Andante of the Rosamunde Quartet, which is based on the theme that gives this quartet its name.
The recording captures the quartets vividly and realistically and Misha Donat’s notes are erudite and stylish.
Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest Beethoven recordings available
Following the overwhelming popularity of our lists of the 50 greatest Mozart, Bach, Chopin and Handel 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.
Piano Concertos Nos 1-5
Pierre-Laurent Aimard pf Chamber Orchestra of Europe / Nikolaus Harnoncourt
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 1-5
Paul Lewis pf BBC Symphony Orchestra / Jiří Bělohlávek
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)
'The Beethoven Journey' (Piano Concertos Nos 1-5. Choral Fantasia)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Leif Ove Andsnes pf
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)
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.
Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4
Maria João Pires pf Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Harding
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 3 & 4
Murray Perahia pf Concertgebouw Orchestra / Bernard Haitink
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5
Till Fellner pf Montreal Symphony Orchestra / Kent Nagano
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)
Piano Concertos Nos 4 & 5
Emil Gilels pf Philharmonia Orchestra / Leopold Ludwig
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.
Itzhak Perlman vn Philharmonia Orchestra / Carlo Maria Giulini
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)
Isabelle Faust vn Orchestra Mozart / Claudio Abbado
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)
Complete with the original Gramophone reviews of 50 of the finest JS Bach recordings available
Following the overwhelming popularity of our lists of the 50 greatest Mozart recordings and 50 greatest Beethoven recordings, we are proud to present 50 of the finest recordings of JS Bach's music. Included here are Gramophone Award-winning albums, Recordings of the Month and Editor's Choice discs from the likes of Glenn Gould, Gustav Leonhardt, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Angela Hewitt, Igor Levit, and many more. The list is organised by genre, beginning with orchestral works, then moving though chamber, instrumental and vocal. 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. Any list of great Bach recordings is, of course, going to be subjective, but we hope that this list will give a helpful guide to those embarking on their first excursions into Bach's music, as well as those looking to add to already expansive record collections. Enjoy!
Keyboard Concertos Nos 1, 2 & 4
ASMF / Murray Perahia pf
Soloist-conducted piano concertos can sometimes mean compromise, even chaos…but not in this case. Indeed, the playing of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields under Murray Perahia is even sprightlier than on a rival EMI recording of the same repertoire where Sir Neville Marriner conducts and Andrei Gavrilov plays the keyboard part. As soloist, Perahia is his usual stylish, discreet and pianistically refined self. He takes the D minor Concerto’s opening at a fair lick, a hot-foot sprinter embellishing the line with taste and affecting a little ritardando at 3'21 (just as the mood momentarily brightens) à la Edwin Fischer.
Elsewhere, he is very much his own man, intensifying his tone for rising sequences (at around 5'06) or softening it to the most rarefied murmur (as from 4'54 into the third movement). His command of colour is as striking here as it was on his recent CD of the Goldberg Variations (Sony Classical, 12/00), especially in the Adagio, which approaches cantorial heights of intensity. When it comes to the treacherous chordal cadenza at 6'11 into the finale, Perahia keeps up the momentum without either flagging or straining his tone.
As for the E major and A major Concertos, elegance is more of the essence than fire, but there too Perahia delivers. He has a way of accenting without jabbing the keys, tracing counterpoint while keeping the top line well to the fore. And how nice to hear the warming tone of a theorbo (bass lute) in the E major Concerto’s central Siciliano, a beautiful performance, more ornamental than cantorial, in keeping with the more decorative nature of the music. Tracks 6 and 7 (the E major’s finale and the A major’s opening Allegro) provide cheering examples of Perahia’s buoyant way with Bach’s faster music.
Rivals are plentiful, but credible contenders at this level of interpretation are rare. Andrei Gavrilov ‘out-Goulds’ Gould with his dry staccatissimo, and Gould himself was a good deal livelier in concert than on his rather sober commercial recording under Leonard Bernstein. Sviatoslav Richter plays with incredible control while keeping every note alive, but some might find his manner too austere. And while Edwin Fischer is consistently spontaneous, he is rather less elegant than Perahia – and his version of the A major Concerto sounds to me as if it’s ‘Busonified’ (or something very similar). Andras Schiff, like Perahia, commands a wide range of colours, though the binding force of Perahia’s concentration – always a boon in his latest recordings – leaves the stronger impression. The carefully balanced Sony recordings keep the sound frame tight and lively. All in all, this counts as yet another exceptional Bach-Perahia release. Rob Cowan (May 2001)
Angela Hewitt pf Australian Chamber Orchestra / Richard Tognetti
These are not entirely modern-instrument performances. Angela Hewitt includes, as she says, ‘a harpsichord in its traditional role as continuo’. Combining old and new isn’t unusual because in the early years of period performing practices, the likes of Thurston Dart, Raymond Leppard and George Malcolm married a harpsichord to modern strings and wind. What’s unusual here is the melding of two different types of keyboard, one sharply transient, the other ductile; and just how their functions dovetail with one another may be heard in the slow movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No 5. Hewitt also adds a cello to the continuo while contributing notes inégales, appogiature and other embellishments to her own line. The result is a potent artistic synergy between the musicians.
Hewitt doesn’t slavishly follow a formula, though. In the Adagio of No 1 and the Adagio e piano sempre of No 3 (where she is most intense because both remind her of Passion music), she omits the keyboard’s bass notes for the exposition of the theme but only in No 1 does she play them for its return at the end. In these instances, in the Andante of No 7 and elsewhere, she also varies the prominence of her left hand to give the ripieno string bass a strong presence too, while delineating the right hand melody most feelingly.
Interpretative decisions are intelligently applied; and Hewitt is at her best in the slow movements, all of which are played with the finest sensibility. If a more sinewy approach to a few of the outer movements might not have come amiss, her ability to gauge the critical notes of phrases so as to maintain an elastically accented rhythm offers ample compensation; and the consummate Australian Chamber Orchestra is with her every step of the way. The flute is placed backward in BWV1044 but otherwise recorded balance and sound ensure unimpeded concentration on the performances. Small changes in level between some works are easily adjusted.
Albert Schweitzer denounced the seven keyboard concertos as arrangements ‘often made with quite incredible haste and carelessness’. They are nothing of the sort. Bach took a lot of care over their reworking; and Hewitt and Co do likewise over their re-creation. A superb pair of discs. Nalen Anthoni (September 2005)
Violin Concertos, BWV1041-42. Double Concerto, etc
Daniel Hope vn Jaime Martin fl Marieke Blankestijn vn Kristian Bezuidenhout hpd/org Chamber Orchestra of Europe
First impressions suggest a high-energy, tightly accented approach, “period”-schooled while retaining an element of modern-instrument intensity, mostly in the slow movements. Daniel Hope sees to it that the bass-line is firm and prominent, which tends to underline the sense of urgency. The Double Concerto’s Largo focuses two well matched players responding to, rather than mirroring, each other, invariably with one using more vibrato than the other. Outer movements are fast and buoyant (the A minor’s gigue-allegro really whizzes along) and in the E major, Hope whirls into the first movement’s second idea like a dervish possessed. Embellishment is legion, both along the solo line and in the discreetly balanced but lavishly stated continuo. The results approximate, more than usual with this music, dance models of the day, yet Hope always allows the slower music to breathe.
Plenty of air around the notes in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, too, the way the cellos unexpectedly come to the fore at 2'42", adding extra body to the overall texture. Again the spirit of the dance is all-pervasive, but come the solo harpsichord cadenza, although Kristian Bezuidenhout plays brilliantly (I like the way he accelerates his way back towards the tutti’s return, from 8'15"), I wasn’t sure about his intrusive bending of tempo. This sort of approach has become fairly popular: Rinaldo Alessandrini’s Award-nominated set of Brandenburgs for Naïve is similarly individualistic. In most other respects this is a refreshing, often enlightening programme, very well recorded. Rob Cowan (Awards issue 2006)
Alina Ibragimova vn Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen
In all likelihood, Bach composed 20 or more violin concertos, mainly at Weimar and Cöthen, and yet tantalisingly we are left with only two works for a single soloist – more often than not joined at the hip with the celebrated ‘Double’. The fashion these days is to return to Bach’s own transcriptions for keyboard as a repository for some speculative reworkings, and this approach inspires Alina Ibragimova’s varied, committed and poised readings of five solo concertos.
Defining the landscape is Jonathan Cohen’s elegant and spontaneously coloured palette summoned from Arcangelo, heard so startlingly in a fine Mass in B minor (11/14) and now redeployed to provide a sensuous ‘period’ accompaniment to Ibragimova’s style-aware modern playing. How far we have come in blurring the boundaries of previously polarised Baroque performing traditions.
If Ibragimova is occasionally caught between two stools in whether (or not) to follow her instincts, the best performances are brazenly alive, responsive and unselfconscious, underpinned by the soft-grained luxuriance of the lute continuo (note the assuaging sweet-and-sour hues of the slow movements of both the A minor and E major concertos, BWV1041 & 42) and a highly modulated use of dynamics.
The most problematic ‘transcription’ here is the A major (BWV1055), a work that has confounded scholars as to its true provenance, not least owing to its low register and figuration that seems almost deliberately unidiomatic. A somewhat hearty, even bullish, onslaught by Ibragimova rather misses the point in the opening movement – even if the clear springs of intrinsic radiance are, however, restored later in the work. If the strumming lute can seem a touch overbearing, the ‘Frenchified’ turns, manners and whims bring a delectable quality throughout.
The E major Concerto is triumphantly joyous, and we can also admire the thoughtful conceits of the G minor (BWV1056), despite a few awkward corners in intonation; the sublimely succinct slow movement reveals Ibragimova’s vibrato as an expressive tool of considerable discernment. Yet it’s the soloist’s unerring focus and resolute direction which see her flying through the D minor Concerto (BWV1052) with magnificent bravura. Her tendency to push the tempo contributes to the fireworks in the outer movements: an admirable riposte to the tyranny of the metronome! This is an outstanding and distinctive addition to a catalogue bursting at the seams. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood (November 2015)
Brandenburg Concerto No 5. Concerto for Flute, Violin, Harpsichord. Italian Concerto
Jaime Martin fl Kenneth Sillitoe vn Jakob Lindberg theorbo ASMF / Murray Perahia
The spirit of Prades and Marlboro is here revisited, with Murray Perahia first among equals and the whole production infused with a sense of spontaneous musical interplay. To take just one telling example, go to 3'42" into the first movement of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, where Perahia cues a breathtaking diminuendo then boldly builds towards the recapitulated opening theme. The sense of engagement is infectious. Then there’s the cadenza, subtly reminiscent of Alfred Cortot in its bell-like voicing, elegance and, just prior to the orchestra’s return, cumulative excitement.
There are, in a sense, two Perahias at work here: the first a non-percussive front-man whose evenly deployed runs are a joy, unlike some who more approximate a hard stick being drawn past iron railings. And then there’s the keyboard poet within the orchestra, who even when playing mezzoforte or piano manages to project a full tone (witness his presence in the tutti afterBrandenburg No 5’s cadenza). The presence of a theorbo helps flavour the two concerto slow movements, the Triple Concerto especially where the impression of ‘leaning together’ is very pronounced. Superb solo playing, too, flautist Jaime Martin producing a memorably plangent tone.
As on previous Perahia Bach concerto recordings, the overriding impression is of intelligence, sensitivity and drama tempered by humility – Bach’s and Perahia’s. The Italian Concerto begs the by-now familiar question as to how one pair of hands can command so many simultaneous dynamic grades without sounding strained or self-conscious. The outer movements are colourful but never prettified, the principal melody of the central Andante like a memory of classic bel canto. And yet Perahia’s Bach has plenty going on: you attend to one layer of counterpoint, then return for another and so on, discovering something new each time. Even when judged in relation to other top-ranking piano recordings of Bach (among the most recent, Goode, Hewitt, Schiff and Anderszewski) this CD strikes me as exceptional. The recorded sound is full and forward. Rob Cowan (December 2003)
Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6
Concerto Italiano / Rinaldo Alessandrini
How do you embark on a new addition to the vast pile of Brandenburg Concerto recordings? Do you go for a radical interpretation set to make people jump, laugh or recoil in surprise? Or do you perform them more or less as other good performers have but just try to do it better? Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano have gone for the latter approach and succeeded brilliantly. There is perhaps no Baroque group around today that can do the simple and obvious things to such exciting effect.
This is not to say that their Brandenburgs have no distinguishing features – just that, where they do, they spring from eminent good sense, as, for instance, in No 3 when the two central link chords come attached to a harpsichord flourish which has arisen directly from the first movement’s final chord; or the abrupt ending of No 2; or any number of places where an inner part is brought out with the help of a generously drawn legato so that you are left wondering why you never noticed it before.
Indeed, clarity of texture is one of this recording’s most glorious virtues, offering a view of the contrapuntal wonders of the music that has not always been available. This is particularly striking in the potentially murky, homogeneous textures of Nos 3 and 6; but the other, more colourfully scored concertos are just as lucidly done – a triumph of the balancer’s art, obviously, but surely just as much a result of clear-headed thinking on the part of the performers. Equally enlivening is a tight attention to articulative detail and tasteful ornamentation which keeps the music bouyant and forward-moving at all times.
Technically, things are not always perfect: the horn players struggle sometimes to keep up in No 1 and the solo trumpet part in No 2 is a bit harum-scarum. But the performances are so joyous and fresh that, in their straightforward but deeply musical way, they are the most invigorating newcomers to the Brandenburg fold since Musica Antiqua Köln’s provocative recording of the mid-1980s. Right now I can’t stop playing these discs.
Bonuses come in the form of the Sinfonia to Cantata 174 (a version of the first movement of Concerto No 3 to which lusty oboes and horns have been added) and a curious ‘patch take’ of the shorter, swirling first version of the harpsichord cadenza to No 5 (which I suppose you could edit in yourself if you happen to have the equipment). There is also a pleasingly unhyperbolic DVD of the sessions including interviews with Alessandrini. Lindsay Kemp (November 2005)
Brandenburg Concertos Nos 1-6
European Brandenburg Ensemble / Trevor Pinnock
When Trevor Pinnock first recorded the Brandenburgs with the English Concert for DG Archiv in 1982, period performances of these works were relatively rare; today they abound, and it has become harder to make a mark in music that does not readily admit a wide range of interpretations. Not that Pinnock need worry about that at this point in his career. This new recording, made with an ensemble hand-picked for the job, is a 60th-birthday present to himself, and is just what such a project should be: talented musicians relishing each other’s company in music of truly inspiring greatness.
Unsurprisingly, it reflects the increased playing standards of 25 years of period-instrument growth. Only Pinnock himself remains from that first line-up, and while the players then were a high-class team (Simon Standage, Lisa Beznosiuk and Michael Laird among them), the players of the European Brandenburg Ensemble include some of the finest of today’s Baroque chamber players, and there is a relaxed expertise about their performances which seems to allow them to communicate directly and without technical or ideological hindrance. A hint of over-exuberant thickness in the texture of Concerto No 1 is perhaps a reflection of this, but elsewhere it is good to hear playing from the likes of violinist Kati Debretzeni, flautist Katy Bircher and the excellent David Blackadder on trumpet that is bold and confident without straying into coarseness. The clarity achieved in Nos 4, 5 and 6 also has a more natural air than the “studio-y” balance of the Archiv set, no doubt helped by the decision to use a violone at pitch rather than the more usual octave below. The pensive violin improvisation which links the two movements of No 3 is surely a miscalculation, feeling like more of a hold-up than it need be; more lastingly refreshing to my ears were the subtle relaxations of tension in the first movement of No 6, these days so often given the hard-drive treatment.
This is not a Brandenburg set that sets out to score points, and all that is needed from us is to sit back and enjoy its relaxed, celebratory spirit. Lindsay Kemp (March 2008)
Dunedin Consort / John Butt
Expertly stylish recordings of the six concertos Bach presented in neat copy to the Margrave of Brandenburg in March 1721 are two-a-penny but the Dunedin Consort offer more substantial style and bona fide expertise than most. John Butt’s essay is an accessible commentary, narrated with a friendly authority that bespeaks his extensive academic and performing experience. Several choices reveal sincere reflection about how Bach might have expected such concertos to be played during his years of service at Cöthen, such as the use of low ‘Cammerton’ pitch (A=392) and Werkmeister III temperament, and a decision to tune the viola da gamba and violone grosso to ‘Chorton’ (ie up a third) in order to better exploit the sonorities of open strings. None of those principles would be quite so valuable if the music-making wasn’t charismatic and refreshing. About half of the revolving team of 20 have participated in high-profile recordings before but the Dunedin players forge their own identity and capture what Butt praises as ‘carefree, joyous and spontaneous works’.
The pair of horns and three oboes in the opening of Concerto No 1 offer unforced conversational sparkle and the French-style fourth movement is an eloquent courtly dance (particularly the poignant trio for oboes and bassoon and compassionate strings in the Polacca). In Concerto No 2 the concertante quartet of David Blackadder (trumpet), Pamela Thorby (recorder), Alexandra Bellamy (oboe) and Cecilia Bernardini (violin) play with an airy fluidity, with graceful natural trumpet leaving room for recorder and oboe in the limelight. The nine-part strings in the dazzling finale of Concerto No 3 (which Butt takes at quite a lick) suggest the extravagant flair of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico. The final Presto of Concerto No 4 is just one example of Bernardini’s articulate bowing and relaxed phrasing in rapid passages, and cellist Jonathan Manson and harpsichordist Butt provide continuo with characterful joie de vivre. Butt plays a modern replica of a large Mietke harpsichord like one purchased by the Cöthen court in 1719 and his flexible performance of Bach’s cadenza in Concerto No 5 has a rare extemporised atmosphere of exuberant fun; the amusement of the orchestra is almost tangible in the closing ritornello. In contrast, the lower strings convey sublime melancholy in the Adagio ma non tanto of Concerto No 6. Not withstanding the distinguished Brandenburg discography, this set is nothing short of sensational. David Vickers (Awards issue 2013)
Freiburg Baroque Orchestra / Petra Mullejans, Gottfried von der Goltz
Over the years, we’ve come to expect outstanding performances from the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra and this issue certainly does not disappoint. The four Orchestral Suites are supremely life-affirming music, fully realised here with playing that emphasises rhythmic vitality and poise, as well as giving inspiring expression to Bach’s wonderful melodic lines. There are some exceptional individual contributions: brilliant violin-playing in the Overture of the Third Suite, a beautifully matched trio of oboes and bassoon enlivening many moments in the First Suite and, in the Second Suite, Karl Kaiser’s immaculate flute-playing, with spectacular, stylish embellishments to the repeated sections.
The tempi are often quite brisk but never excessively fast and the orchestra’s internal balance is especially good; in the two D major Suites, the trumpets uninhibitedly promote a festive atmosphere but are sensitive enough to allow other instruments to take the lead when their parts are more important. You may not agree with the Freiburgers’ refusal to over-dot in the overtures but you’ll have to agree that, through persuasive phrasing, they perform these sections entirely convincingly. Indeed, conviction shows on every track of the set. This is music-making to lift the spirits. Duncan Druce (Awards issue 2012)
Brook Street Band
As Brook Street Band founder and cellist Tatty Theo says in her booklet-notes, the band’s reason for recording yet another arrangement of Bach’s six trio sonatas for organ has been for “the sheer pleasure of playing this wonderful music, and the wish to share it”. And it shows, with unaffected performances of remarkable freshness and vitality. Bach took the Italian trio sonata and “organ-ised” it, assigning the two melodic lines to one manual apiece and the bass to the pedal. Theo’s arrangements “reassign” the melodic lines to the violins and the bass to cello and harpsichord continuo; harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley is careful, too, not to obscure Bach’s writing with her right hand.
The BSB’s approach combines the clarity of London Baroque with the elegance of the Purcell Quartet while hinting at the colour of the Palladian Ensemble, which employs recorders and plucked strings as well as violin and gamba on its excellent disc of arrangements of Bach sonatas and chorales. But the exuberance is all BSB’s own. Theo’s bass is clear and firm throughout, providing a centre of gravity for violinists Rachel Harris and Farran Scott to really dance. This is as apparent in the fast major-key movements such as BWV529’s opening Allegro and dramatic minor-key movements such as the Vivace from BWV526 as it is in the slower, which, like the Largo of BWV526, tend towards the quicker side without sacrificing delicacy or gravitas. The variety of string articulation together with Gibley’s discrete harmonisations further serve both to enliven and to elucidate Bach’s musical arguments. Superb. William Yeoman (January 2011)