Olga Scheps Plays Eric Satie – Delicate and Exquisite (A Review)

Eric Satie

You’d think after more than 200 posts I should have covered every major classical composer. And for the major ones this is probably true.

But there are still composers out there that I haven’t written about, including Eric Satie.

While his name may not be exactly a household item, he has written piano music that is often much better known than the composer himself, as they’ve been used in movies and on television all over the place.

His most famous pieces include the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes. Most recently, you may have heard him in the soundtracks of TV series Mr. Robot or Dr. Who, but the list  at IMDB counts 185 entries. Satie has even been covered in Jazz, see for example on Paolo Fresu´s Mare Nostrum II or on Enrico Pieranunzi´s recent album Menage à trois. 

How did it I get to this blog post? Well, it was triggered by a discussion with my mother-in-law, who is at least as passionate about music as I am. She said “Have you written about Satie yet?” I answered that I hadn’t yet, but mainly because I still hadn’t found my “perfect” version.

Satie is not that often recorded. For years, you’d find a handful of classical recordings, typically by French pianists, like Aldo Ciccolini (ok he’s originally from Italy), or Pascal Rogé.

I hadn’t checked out new Satie recordings in quite a while. Turns out that was a mistake, he’s been recorded quite a bit in recent years. Steffen Schleiermacher released several volumes of his music on Dabringhaus und Grimm in 2012, Alexandre Thauraud published an album in 2014, and most recently, Russian/German pianist Olga Scheps has released an album on RCA Red Seal.

Olga Scheps – Satie (RCA Red Seal 2016)

Olga Scheps Satie RCA Red Seal 2016 24/88

In said discussion with my mother in law, we checked out several of these recent recordings. Initially I was relatively quick to dismiss Scheps´recording, based on simply on how she played Gnossienne No. 1.

Said Gnossienne has “lent” in the title, and I didn’t feel like Scheps was taking this work particularly slow. Indeed, her 3:07 are among the fastest out there, compared to Alexandre Tharaud at 3:34 or even more extreme Jean-Yves Thibaudet at 4:33. But actually, as sometimes I tend to be, my judgment was a bit too fast.

First of all, the legendary Ciccolini is even faster with 3:03, and actually, speed isn’t everything here. Turns out that Scheps really puts a lot of nuances into her Satie. A lot of details are highlighted, but in a fully natural way without ever sounding too “educational”.

Scheps, who being born in Russia, grew up in Germany, and now lives in Cologne, is probably better known for her very nice recording of Tchaikovsky´s 1st piano concerto than for these relatively “simple” pieces.

But you really need to check out this album, it reveals all the beauty there is in these little miniatures. This is not the “elevator music” as the composer sometimes called his own work (“musique d’ameublement”), this album requires you to sit down and take the time to absorb.

My rating: 4 stars

 

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

Proud to Announce That My Blog Has Been Selected Among Musicaroo´s Top 100 Independent Music Blogs!

Top 100 Independent Music Blogs for 2018

I had a pleasant surprise in my email inbox last night, telling me my blog has been selected into the top 100 Independent Music Blogs for 2018.

The author of this list is Camila Rabin of Musicaroo, a very nicely done site about music teaching. Camila Rabin, the author, is a music teacher herself, and very passionate about music.

The focus of this lists are independent blogs like mine that are not owned by large corporations or media outlets.

I can affirm that this was a completely independent process, the first time I heard about this list was literally when I received said email.

Unfortunately, the list doesn’t specify musical genres, but not surprisingly, the number of blogs focusing on classical music and Jazz, both niches in itself, are only a handful in there at best.

Obviously, in the big noise of the internet, my little endeavor here is nothing but a little blip, therefore it is even nicer to receive this kind of recognition.

Given that I actually have a day job and have no time nor money to devote to actually promoting my blog as much as I probably should (professional bloggers say 20% of time should be content generation and 80% promotion, for me it is more like 90% content, 10% promotion), this is even more gratifying.

Plus, being mentioned in great company as the legendary Alex Ross (The Rest Is Noise) of the New Yorker, or  Robert Hugill of Planet Hugill, is truly an honor.

Thank you!

Let me take this opportunity to thank you, my faithful readers, for all your interest and feedback. It keeps me motivated every week to continue sharing my passion for music!

 

 

 

 

ECM Now Available For Streaming – And A Review of Manu Katchés Album Neighbourhood

ECM Records

ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is one of the most legendary Jazz (and classical) labels out there. Founded by Manfred Eicher back in 1969, it really has been able to tailor a very specific profile.

Having world class artists like Keith Jarrett obviously helped, but today you could really argue that ECM has a kind of “house” sound. The immediately recognizable abstract, typically dark album covers make ECM very distinctive.

And we are not only talking about Jazz, the album has done some fantastic classical (and contemporary classical) recordings as well, e.g. with the fantastic Andras Schiff.

You will find quite a number of ECM albums on my blog (just enter ECM in the free text search on the sidebar), or check out my 25 Essential Jazz albums, which features 2 ECM albums.

Streaming

I personally see the major arrival of streaming with two different viewpoints.

From a consumer perspective, the possibility to access music for a “flat rate” in an unlimited way is just fantastic. The big platforms such as Spotify offer more than 30M titles. Remember the old days when there were record stores, and having more than 250 albums was considered a huge library (not surprising, given that one would have spent typically more than $3,000-5,000 to assemble such a physical treasure). Today, $120 per year gets you full access. I’ve personally joined the streaming bandwagon quite late, only about 2 years ago (around the time when I started this blog).

Streaming for me now is a fantastic tool to discover new music. All new albums just show up online, and you can sample as much as you want.

Now, what are the downsides?

First of all, streaming really made the concept of an “album” pretty redundant. Admittedly, the iTunes story that for the first time allowed the purchase of individual “songs” (which is by the way a completely inappropriate name for a piece of classical music, I prefer the term “Track”), but basically, since Spotify the album has often been replaced by individualized playlists.

True, the concept of a “mix tape” (remember those) pre-dates the idea of a playlist, but these were pretty hard work to get done.

Now, is the demise of the album a bad thing? Maybe not. In Jazz, suprisingly, the album still seems to be highly relevant, and in classical music the “album” concept never made a lot of sense anyhow, forcing the record companies to sometimes randomly bundle classical works just to fill the 70+ minutes of capacity. I have more versions e.g. of the Academic Festival Overture that I care for, as this was (to this day, see here) a typical “filler” piece.

Secondly, streaming typically means compressed sound quality. The MP3 standard invented to squeeze more music into less memory space is also pretty much universal now these days for streaming, which means quite a lot of musical information simply gets thrown out. This doesn’t matter if you listen with $5 Apple earbuds, but if you have a good music system, you will be missing out. To this day, there are only two streaming services, Qobuz (France) and TIDAL (US), that stream in lossless CD quality or even higher (MQA for Tidal, up to 24/192 for Qobuz). Unfortunately, except for some hifi nerds like me, nobody cares about this any more, therefore, both TIDAL and Qobuz still are losing money.

Thirdly, and much more important, it is still very much unclear how artists are supposed to live of streaming. Artists, depending on the streaming service, get amounts in the cent range of even less per play. That may be ok if you’re called Beyonce or Taylor Swift, but for a small Jazz or classical artist, the revenues generated here are literally just peanuts, and much less attractive than selling albums.

Therefore, on top of my spend for the streaming service of choice (Qobuz in my case), I also tend to purchase those albums that I really care about to support the artist, and you really should do as well, if you want the artist to survice and continue to create the beautiful music we all crave.

In summary, I can understand why ECM (like some other labels, e.g. Hyperion) decided for years not to make their content available for streaming. Well, they’ve finally changed their mind, citing as the main reason the fact that the first priority is that the music should be heard.

Well, we can all agree on that, but let’s not forget, artists need to make a living!

Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (ECM 2005)

After this very long parenthesis, let’s use this occasion to dig a bit into the ECM back catalogue.

And let’s start with an excellent Jazz album by French drummer Manu Katché, Neighbourhood.Manu Catch Neighbourhood ECM 2005 24/96,

Katché (with origins in France and the Ivory Coast) actually isn’t your typical Jazz drummer. He is an outstanding studio musician that has played a lot of pop/rock as well.

The first time I ever saw him was admittedly in a much more “low-brow” context, when I was watching Nouvelle Star, the French version of Pop IdolAmerican Idol on French television.

But this album is 100% Jazz. You would have thought so when you look at the line-up: Tomasz Stanko! Jan Garbarek! Marcin Wasilewski! Slawomir Kurkiewicz! (for one of my favorite albums of the two latter, check out my post about My Top 10 Jazz Covers of Pop Songs).

It starts extremely strong, with November 99, my favorite song of the album. Wasilewski starts a dreamy piano improvisation, when Katché joins him, followed by Kurkiewicz on bass. You immediately get in the fantastic slow groove that makes this song so hypnotic. I can listen to this song over and over again, and never get tired. Stanko (trumpet) and Garbarek (saxophone) don’t even feature on this song, it is a pure trio performance (maybe that’s why I like it so much…).

The horns only get to join in track number 2, Number One. You’ll immediately recognize the signature Garbarek sound (e.g. from the great Keith Jarrett album My Song, see also here). Stanko joins later. And again, in this song, Katchés nearly hypnotic drive is really what makes this album so special.

Another favorite of mine is the ballad February Sun, where Stanko sounds better than Chet Baker.

Overall, a highly enjoyable album. Check it out (and buy it if you like it!)

My rating: 4 stars (the opening track is 5 stars to me)

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

Brahms 2nd with Paavo Järvi and the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen – Outstanding!

Brahms

Did I mention I like Brahms? Well to be fair, the subtitle of my blog kind of gives it away.

These are good times for lovers of Brahms symphonies. Only recently Andris Nelsons has released his fantastic cycle of the 4 symphonies with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (see my 5 star review here), now finally Paavo Järvi starts his Brahms cycle with the Kammerphilharmonie Bremen as well.

Paavo Järvi

I really liked his Beethoven cycle with the same orchestra, actually it is among my current references. His Schumann is also great. So obviously I had high hopes for his Brahms.

And I’m not disappointed.

Brahms Symphony No. 2 – Paavo Järvi – Kammerphilharmonie Bremen (RCA 2017)

Brahms Symphony No. 2 Tragic Overture Academic Festival Overture Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen RCA 2017 SACD

The 2nd symphony is not my favorite of the four. 1 and 4 are outstanding, 3 is great, and 2 is just nice in my personal classification. Many have described the 2nd as Brahms “Pastorale“. Obviously, there is more to it, but a certain influence in the peaceful moments cannot be completely discarded. That said, , as the booklet also nicely explains, Brahms himself called the work “melancholic” and “sad” and even had the score printed with a black border.

How does Järvi deal with the symphony? The Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, as the name indicates, is a chamber orchestra, so you’d expect a slimmer sound than e.g. with the Berlin Philharmonic.

But don’t expect this to sound like a HIP baroque orchestra, you still get the full color of  a symphony orchestra, maybe just not as cinemascope as e.g. the latest Rattle cycle or Nelsons with the BSO. There have been some interesting adaptations, e.g the drums are having goat skin giving them a very particular sound.

Overall, it is very balanced, and nuanced. You get plenty of romanticism though, after all this is Brahms we are talking about. I particularly like the end of the 2nd movement, where

As a “filler”, you get the Tragic Overture and Academic Festival Overture. Both are nice to have, but nothing I´d listen to on a regular basis. There is too much outstanding music elsewhere.

Overall this is one of the best Brahms 2 currently on the market.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or on many other streaming sites.

If you prefer the original SACD, it is unfortunately very pricey (only found it for $40-60, what’s going on here?)

 

Piano Night (Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic VII) – So Much Fun – A Review

Three Great Pianists

Wow. An album that combines three very talented Jazz pianists.

I’ve shared my admiration for the German pianist Michael Wollny several times (see here, here, and here for example), and have also mentioned him in my 25 Essential Jazz albums.

I’ve also already written about the Finnish pianist Iiro Rantala previously (see my review of Anyone with a Heart here).

Leszek Mozdzer from Poland is the only artist I haven’t written about yet, but his album Komeda is very much worth checking out.

As regular readers of my blog will have seen, I was quite a regular visitor at the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, but I’m quite sad I missed this particular pan-European concert evening that was recorded live in 2016.

 

Leszek Mozdzer, Iiro Rantala, Michael Wollny – Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic VII – Piano Night (ACT 2017)

Leszek Modzdzer Iiro Rantala Michael Wollny Jazz at Berlin Philharmonic VIII Piano Night 24/48 ACT 2017

Let me start with the highlight of this album: Chick Corea´s La Fiesta, from his legendary Return to Forever album. I’m very sure Corea would endorse this fantastically energetic live version. There is one Fender Rhodes electric piano involved, similar to the sound of Corea´s famous 1970s band. It is hard to tell just from listening who plays the Fender, but the booklet makes it clear: the three actually take turns!

Highlight number two is another Jazz standard, Gershwin´s Summertime, in a fantastic version.

But don’t expect the other songs to be of any lower level, from the very first second you’ll get absorbed by three outstanding musicians who clearly have a lot of fun together. Some of the previous tracks are originals. Rantala contributes Freedom, and Mozdzer She Said She Was A Painter.

If you like energetic piano jazz, this album is highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters).

If you don’t like downloads, you’ll need to go with the 180g vinyl pressing, as this album is not available as a regular CD.

A new Trout Quartet recording with Daniil Trifonov and Anne Sophie Mutter – Very Enjoyable

Two superstars and prodigies

Anne-Sophie Mutter, for those of us who are old enough to remember, was a classical music  prodigy. Herbert von Karajan put her on the map when he performed a Mozart violin concerto with her in 1977, when she was 13. Anne-Sophie Mutter was a major star for the Deutsche Grammphon label in the 1980s and 90s.

I must admit I never very much liked her early recordings, to my ears they suffered from the same problem as Karajan´s late work on DG, just too much of everything. However, in recent years, Mutter style has evolved significantly, and her recent recordings, e.g. her 2013 recording of the Dvorak concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, or her 2008 recording of the Bach violin concertos with the Trondheim Soloists show a very different Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Daniil Trifonov (born in 1991) started a tiny bit later, winning third price in the Chopin competition in 2010, and winning some major competitions one year later. Since then, he has released some fantastic albums, e.g. his great Rachmaninov album in 2015, or his recent Liszt Transcedental Etudes, all justify that he was named “Artist of the year” by Gramophone in 2016. Deutsche Grammophon (or whatever is left of it within the big Universal Music Group conglomerate) clearly still has a good taste in selecting musicians.

Schubert: Forellenquintett – Anne-Sophie Mutter – Daniel Trifonov (Deutsche Grammophon 2017)

Schubert: Trout Quintet / Forellenquartett Anne-Sophie Mutter Daniil Trifoniv 24/96 Deutsche Grammophon 2017

I’ve written quite a bit how much I love Schubert´s Chamber music (see here and here for my favorite versions of the string quintet, or an article here about the Rosamunde quartet), but so far I’ve never mentioned the Forellen or Trout piano quintet.

I really don’t know why, but somehow this work never ranked as highly in my personal scale as the pure string chamber works. Silly, I know, it is truly beautiful.

Before we go into the album itself, who else do we have here beyond our two super stars? I must admit I had never heard the names of Hwayoon Lee (viola), Maximilian Hornung (cello), and Roman Patkoló (double bass) before. And even the booklet of the album doesn’t bother to give any more information about them. After some googling it turns out all of them are young musicians that Hornung and Lee both are being developed by Anne-Sophie Mutters Young Talent foundation. Patkoló himself is currently a professor in Basle and has played with Mutter beforehand.

So what do we get here?

This album is the result of a live recording in Baden-Baden in June 2017. And you really feel the energy of a live event. There is passion, drive, and pleasure in every single movement of the Trout. Sometimes, when you have musicians that are not playing in a regular ensemble do chamber music, there is a risk of the music not being fully coherent.

This is not the case here, while Mutter and Trifonov are clearly the stars, all of the instruments merge smoothly in this adventure.

On top of the Trout, you get the Notturno for piano, violin, and cello D897, one of my absolute favorite Schubert works, and some song adaptations for violin and piano, including the famous Schwanengesang.

The only thing I´d have to criticize is that sometimes Mutter (and to some extent also Trifonov) seem to fall back into what I didn’t like about the early recordings, i.e. a bit too much of everything, a bit too much drama and vibrato, where I´d personally prefer even more intimacy (e.g. in the Notturno).

But overall, this is a very enjoyable album.

My rating: 4 stars

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

Musicophile’s Top 10 Chopin Albums

This list was triggered by a very interesting thread on a discussion forum I participate in, on Computer Audiophile. The thread is called “My Essential Classical Albums” by a forum participant called Sphinxsix.

The entire thread is very much worth checking out, I found a lot of recommendations on there already.

But with this specific question regarding Chopin, I noticed that I already pretty much had all the recordings I recommended covered on my blog. So in part, this is also a “best of list” of my Chopin blog posts. But there are also quite a number of albums I haven’t featured yet.

For those albums previously covered, you will find links in the entries below to the original blog posts. In the original blog posts, you’ll also find their respective download links.

1. The Nocturnes – Moravec

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

To me, the Nocturnes are the quintessential Chopin, even more than the Preludes or the Etudes. And when we talk Nocturnes, the legendary Ivan Moravec version really is unbeatable. It is not by coincidence that I’ve ranked Moravec in my in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists for this album alone. I’ve also mentioned this Album in My 25 Essential Classical Music album, as it is so important to me.

2. The Preludes – Blechacz

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

Right after the Nocturnes, the Preludes are my favorite Chopin, both op. 10 and 25 are oustanding achievements. Here again I could have listed dozens of recordings, but for a Top10 list I’d really like to restrict myself to the young Polish pianists Rafal Blechacz, who recorded this as one of his first albums on Deutsche Grammophon after winning the Warsaw Chopin competition. Another “triple winner”, as he also shows up in My Top 10 Classical Pianists and My 25 Essential Classical Music albums with this recording.

3. The Scherzos – Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

Some readers may be suprised that I rank these so high, but these little gems are very close to my heart. Completely different, each one of them is a world on its own.

Here, my favorite version comes from the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

Grosvenor is also a part of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists.

4. Piano Concertos – Krystian Zimerman

Chopin Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2 Krystian Zimerman Polish Festival Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 1999

The legendary Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, himself also winner of the famous Chopin competition, has recorded the concertos twice. Once with the LA Philharmonic under Giulini in the late 1980s. Knowing that Zimerman is one of the most perfectionist pianists out there, if he records something twice, you can be sure, he does it for a reason.

This second recording from 1999 with a hand-picked “Polish Festival Orchestra”, and while the Giulini recording is already excellent, this one really is a true benchmark.

A must have.

My rating: 5 stars

5. Ballades / Barcarolle – Krystian Zimerman

Chopin 4 Balladen Barcarolle Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Grammophon 1988

Zimerman (also one of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists) is also my recording of choice for the Ballades.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Zimerman perform some of these live, including the beautiful Barcarolle that you’ll also find on this outstanding 1988 album. Don’t miss it.

My rating: 5 stars

6. Etudes – Pollini

Chopin Etudes Maurizio Pollini Deutsche Grammophon

A Chopin list without Maurizio Pollini wouldn’t be complete. I could have easily mentioned him for the Preludes, and several of his other Chopin recordings are legendary. He, like Blechacz, Zimerman above and Argerich below, is also a winner of the Warsaw piano competition (Not that this competition is held only every 5 years, winning it is truly a big deal).

The Etudes are technically extremely challenging. Apparently even a true master like Pollini needed cuts in recording (hundreds of them if you believe some reports). In spite of this piecemeal type recording, the result is just fantastic, and can be described with only one word: fantastic.

Perahia would have been a nice alternative, but Pollini really remains the reference.

My rating: 5 stars

7. Argerich Legendary Chopin

Martha Argerich The Legendary 1965 Chopin Recording Emi

Marta Argerich won the Chopin Competion 5 years after Pollini.

This was one of her first recordings. You will never hear Chopin’s sonata no. 3 played more passionately. Argerich (another member of my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists) is in a way the complete opposite of Pollini. Pollini is typically the perfectionist, rational architect, and Argerich is known for her energy and fire. Check out her recording of the piano concertos for another example of her extraordinary talent.

My rating: 4 stars

8. Cello Sonata – Argerich / Rostropovich

Chopin Cello sonata op. 65 Polonaise op. 3 Schumann Adagio & Allegro op. 70 Mstislav Rostropovich Martha Argerich Deutsche Grammophon

Chopin really isn’t well known for his chamber music. So I must admit that until recently I only knew one recording of this, by Sol Gabetta. In preparation of this blog post I checked out several versions, and end up again with the great Martha Argerich, joined here by the cello giant, Mstislav Rostropovich.

My rating: 4 stars (excellent playing, but the music is not as essential as the piano pieces)

9. Mazurkas – Rubinstein

No Chopin list can be complete without the name that is most closely associated with this composer: Artur Rubinstein.

This recommendation is following up to a recommendation in the forum thread that I should check out his earlier recordings. I ended up liking this version most:

Great Pianists Rubinstein Frederic Chopin Mazurkas 1938-1939 Naxos

Yes, it truly is a historic pre-war recording, but the playing really makes up for it. I usually didn’t care so much about these little dances, but Rubinstein really gives these little pieces such a very special meaning, it is a pleasure to listen to.

My rating: 4 stars

10. The Complete Chopin Edition on Deutsche Grammophon

Deutsche Grammophon Complete Chopin Edition 2009

I typically don’t recommend box sets. Even the better ones are typically hit and miss, as they are typically just “recycling” of older catalog material.

But you probably have noticed the large number of yellow covers above, and DG really did a great job on this 17 CD box.

You’ll get the Zimerman piano concertos in the Polish Festival version, the Ballades again by Zimerman, the Pollini etudes, and the Nocturnes by Maria João Pires (my second favorite after Moravec), the Preludes by Blechacz, and the Cello Sonata by Argerich

In a way, you could think that for this blog post pretty much all I did was copy this box set. Well, actually no, I got all of these albums individually over many years (and also I’m not getting any incentive from DG here). But I’m truly impressed by the selection that DG did here (having all this in their archives obviously helped).

On top, you’ll also get the Mazurkas and Valses well played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, some individual pieces with Anatol Ugorsky, the Scherzos by Pollini again, and the piano sonatas by Lilya Zilberstein and Pollini again.

So if you want to kick-off your Chopin journey, this box really is all you need for a start with truly outstanding recordings.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find the recordings either in the respective original blog post or here:

Concertos / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical) (note that Presto has a special offer on Zimerman recordings until the end of 2017)

Ballades / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Etudes / Pollini: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich Legendary 1965 recording: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich Rostropovich Cello Sonatas: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin Mazurkas Rubinstein here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

The Complete Chopin Edition here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)