Best classical albums of 2020 – Part 1

In 2020 as the world celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven, a large number of albums devoted to the German composer have been released. Faced with this avalanche of recordings, it’s not always easy to find albums that are truly innovative or off the beaten track. As Bernard Fournier puts it in his excellent book on Beethoven’s genius: « Beethoven embodies the paradox that his work fits into the mould of the great classical forms, of which he becomes the master (the sonata form, the variation, and even the fugue) and yet he blows them all off. » (Bernard Fournier, Le génie de Beethoven, Fayard) As a consequence, one of the first hurdles for musicians is to render the tension between tradition and revolution that underlies Beethoven’s music. The other major hurdle facing performers is the weight of an already immense discography, at least as far as Beethoven’s great masterpieces are concerned. Nevertheless, it remains possible for musicians either to renew the interpretation of Beethoven’s most famous masterpieces, or to explore and rediscover less well-known works, or to revisit his music by transforming it.

Beethoven: Symphonies 1 – 5

After attending a wonderful concert performance of Beethoven’s symphonies Nos. 1, 2 and 4 by the Catalan conductor Jordi Savall and the period-instrument ensemble Le Concert des Nations in 2019, I listened with great pleasure to their recent recording of the first five symphonies. As David A. McConnell sums up in his review of the recording on the Classical Review website: « Le concert des Nations’ sound is more heterogeneous than what we hear in other period instruments cycles by Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique (Gardiner/Archiv) or La Chambre Philharmonique (Krivine/Naïve). The agile strings dispatch Beethoven’s many technical challenges with collective ease. Winds are balanced equally with the strings; the brass can really roar (just listen to the beginning of the Fifth Symphony’s last movement), but just as often it is their coloristic sensitivity that impresses. Timpani have tremendous weight and power. Recorded in the resonant acoustic of their usual recording venue, Collégiale du Château de Cardona (Catalogne), the full orchestra sound has a visceral immediacy. » Of all the Beethoven symphonies’ recording releases, I must confess that this is the only one that really gave me the impression of hearing a renewed and perfectly stimulating interpretation. What makes the symphonies sound very fresh is not so much the tempi chosen, which are very dynamic without being excessively so, but the Jordi Savall uses the timbres of orchestra. It is a particularly colourful interpretation of Beethoven’s symphonies, in which Savall’s blending of colours draws new contours to the symphonies and paints new soundscapes.

Jordi Savall, Le Concert des Nations

Immortal Beloved: Beethoven Arias

The Israeli soprano Chen Reiss has chosen for her recital « Immortal Beloved » to interpret rarities from the Beethovenian repertoire, as well as to pay tribute to the feminine ideal of the young Beethoven. In the booklet accompanying the disc, Reiss describes this ideal, contrasting it with Mozart’s female characters: « I think of Mozart’s women as deep, smart, resourceful, even manipulative, but at their core always ‘of this world’ and of their time. For me Beethoven’s music, however, opens the window onto women of another sort. The spectrum of the music and its dramatic continuity widens, the intensity deepens. These women are shown reaching for ideals of sacrifice and courage rarely offered to them in their own world. » Thanks to her sure technique as well as her musical intelligence and dramatic sense, Chen Reiss is the ideal performer of these early Beethoven arias. As Vincent Guillemin explains in his review on the Resmusica website, this album « allows the lyric soprano to deliver her superb palette across a wide spectrum, where easy high notes combine with agility to modulate and vocalise », not to mention the superb accompaniment of Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music.

Chen Reiss (soprano), Oliver Wass (harp)
Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr

Beethoven, si tu nous entends

Condensing Beethoven’s work into one hour of music is the challenge that conductor Nicolas Simon, the ensemble La Symphonie de Poche and composer Robin Melchior have decided to take up by creating a five-movement symphony, which, as the CD booklet explains, « takes root in the composer’s universe and plunges into the immensity of his work, symphonic first of all, but also his chamber music. This creation features selected excerpts from the composer’s work, reunited, rearranged and even transformed them. It depicts various features of Beethoven’s personality and takes the listener on a journey through the major stages of the composer’s complex life ». In collaboration with Tristan Labouret, Robin Melchior was able to construct a coherent emotional and musical portrait of the German composer. In this tribute symphony, « each movement becomes an episode in Beethoven’s life or develops a theme that particularly and lastingly inspired him, and the sequence between movements « is underpinned by a dramatic framework, devised by Tristan Labouret, which allows five aspects of the composer’s development and personality to be considered. All the musical material is chosen in connection with these episodes in his monumental work ». The result is brilliant. It’s both familiar, because it’s faithful to Beethoven’s work, and totally new, because this work is rearranged and transformed so that the album lets us hear an unpublished Beethoven. A musical hour of happiness and rediscovery of Beethoven’s work with very talented musicians!

Symphonie de Poche, Nicolas Simon, Robin Melchior

Uwaga! Beethoven Classical Crossovers

With this album by the musicians of the Uwaga Quartet, the Folkwang Kammerorchester and Johannes Klumpp, we can listen to a different form of revisiting Beethoven’s work by confronting it with the music from Balkans, the East, Swing and Rock, showing that Beethoven’s work easily goes beyond the boundaries of classical music. Here the music of the German composer is transformed to crossover with distant musical universes. However, the result remains faithful to Beethoven’s music, to his energy, his introspective qualities, his sense of rhythm, and his taste for transgression as well as his message of brotherhood and freedom. You will dance in your living room while listening to this disc!

Folkwang Kammerorchester, Johannes Klumpp

Pierre Henry : La Dixième Symphonie – Hommage à Beethoven

Contemporary composer Pierre Henry, a great innovator and often regarded as the father of musique concrète, was fascinated by Beethoven’s work from childhood to the point of imagining a 10th symphony, of which there are three electroacoustic versions, and a symphonic version, here recorded by the Orchestre Philharmonie de Radio France, the Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris, the Jeune Chœur de Paris, the Radio France Choir, tenor Benoît Rameau, as well as Bruno Mantovani, Marzena Diakun, and Pascal Rophé conducting.

Pierre Henry said of his work: « This “Tenth Symphony” is not one Beethoven had sketched out. No more than a blend of the other nine. It’s essentially a work of interconnections. It’s also a hommage to he who hoped for something that would surpass the orchestra. It could be a way of drawing my (or our) portrait using his music and illustrating its influence on my own music. It’s a tour that’s dreamlike, logical and respectful of what these symphonies contain and what they suggest. This piece deliberately uses only notes, groups of notes or themes from the nine symphonies as its “raw material”. » The way the French composer makes fragments of staves clash with each other takes us out of our comfort zone, constantly shifting from familiarity to eeriness.

Premiered in December 2019 in the Maison de la Radio, this symphonic version of the 10th symphony is closer to Beethoven’s material than the electroacoustic versions, as Pierre Carive explains in his review of the concert: « For this 2019 premiere, we are going back to the source, if you like, to Beethoven, and Beethoven only. 75 minutes, for 8 movements with traditional titles. Before the concert, Maxime Barthélemy and Misael Gauchat explained how they edited the orchestral scores for the ONA House based on what Pierre Henry had left behind: collages of musical excerpts on large sheets, and recordings made on three tape recorders. After a huge amount of research (and you can feel all the emotion they put into it), they produced a complete set of material for three orchestras. »

This magnificent recording pays a beautiful tribute both to the genius of Pierre Henry, who passed away in 2017 before he could hear this symphonic version of the 10th symphony performed in concert, and to Beethoven’s, to their experimental audacity, their sense of transgression and their love of freedom.

Bruno Mantovani, Marzena Diakun, Benoît Rameau, Orchestre du Conservatoire de Paris, Jeune Chœur de Paris, Chœur de Radio France, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Pascal Rophé

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