Helge Lien’s New Album Guzuguzu – Fantastic

It’s been a while – sorry

This must have been the longest time between blog posts ever, and I don’t feel good about this.

My only excuse is work (my day job), I’m traveling more than ever including some intercontinential trips (actually, I’m writing this from an airport lounge) and free time was pretty much down to zero.
It doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon, but I still hope I’ll be able to write my weekly blog post (there is more than enough material and notes in my Evernote account).

Helge Lien

I’m a big fan of Norvegian pianist Helge Lien. His trio albums Natsukashii and Hello Troll feature regularly in my playlists, and I’ve given a 4 star review to his previous album Badgers and Other Beings.

So when his latest trio album came out, I was naturally very interested, as a matter of fact, I bought it in less than a day after it came out (I still buy albums, digitally, in spite of also subscribing to streaming, to ensure that artists make at least some money from their art).

Guzuguzu (Ozella Music 2017)

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I really didn’t have to hesitate a long time because the album is truly outstanding.

It is probably my favorite since Hello Troll. You get Scandinavian lyricism combined with often extremely complex rhythms. And even peaceful ballads like Shitoshito (Raining Quietly) get their share of chordal shifts and interesting rhythmic breaks.

Lien plays with his usual companions, Frode Berg on bass, and Per Oddvar Johansen on drums, and you can really hear the intimate connections between the musicians all the time, they truly melt into one common instrument.

Add to this that the recording quality of this album is outstanding, as produced again with recording Engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug at the brilliant Oslo Rainbow studio, this album really cannot be recommended higher if you like Scandinavian trio jazz, or actually trio jazz in general.

My rating: 5 stars

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

Volodos Play Brahms – A Fantastic Album

Brahms late solo piano works

Brahms late piano works, starting with the op. 76, but especially his very late works op. 116 – 119 have always been close to my heart.

His piano sonatas, written when he was young, always touched me much less, although I recently found a version I quite liked.

Most of the op. 76 and 116-119 are simply called Klavierstücke, i.e. piano pieces. They are little collections of 4-8 pieces, typically called Cappriccio or Intermezzo, titles that don’t mean a lot.

To me, while I’m well aware that these are composed works, they always reminded me of improvisations. They lack the formal structure of a Beethoven piano sonata, and really just “live in the moment”, if a musical piece can do such a thing.

In a way, they remind me of Keith Jarrett’s solo concertos.

Arcadi Volodos himself calls these pieces “the Summit of piano music”. Brahms himself called op. 117 “lullabies for my sorrows”.

I’ve only written about one recording of these works yet, with Andreas Staier’s excellent recording of op. 118. This is because I was still looking for my favorite version. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu were both good, I also liked the young French pianist Adam Laloum. But I knew you could do things differently.

Arcadi Volodos

Arcadi Volodos is a Russian pianist and virtuoso. He is pretty well known, but why he doesn’t have more of a reputation escapes me. Maybe it is because he doesn’t search the limelight, and just isn’t present enough in the media.

All of his previous albums were at least good, with some being exceptional, my favorite being Volodos in Vienna, a live recording, and Volodos plays Liszt.

Volodos Plays Brahms

Arcadi Volodos Plays Brahms (24/96) Sony Classical 2017

When I heard this album for the first time, I was a bit puzzled. He really plays these works in a very individual, very different way.

I needed to listen to this at least 5 time before I made up my mind. But now I really just love it. His playing is extremely nuanced, never just showing off the great virtuoso he really is, and in a way, this is probably the recording that gets closest to my idea about playing them like Keith Jarrett plays live.

Nicely enough, the sound quality of this recording matches the musical quality. This was recorded at Berlin’s mythical Teldex Studio, with Volodos playing his personal favorite Steinway. The recording quality captures the intimate nature of these pieces very well.

My rating: 5 stars

Classica agrees by the way, and gives this album a Choc, their highest rating. The Guardian has quite a different opinion, giving it only 3 stars.

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

 

UPDATE May 21: In it’s June 2017 issue, Gramophone agrees and gives this album an Editor’s Choice, and Album of the Month.

 

Giovanni Mirabassi – Live in Germany – Beautiful!

Solo Piano Jazz

In a way, playing jazz all on your own without any support from your rhythm section, is probably one of the hardest things you can do.

Not many pianists can pull it off. Keith Jarrett is probably even more legendary for his solo than his trio work, but beyond him, how many pianists do you really want to listen to solo?

Brad Mehldau has recently shown he can pull it off, Bill Evans has the occasional good solo album (although he is much better as a trio), and then who?

Giovanni Mirabassi

I’ve written about Mirabassi twice previously, I’ve mentioned him as part of My 25 Essential Jazz Albums, and have also written about his album Terra Furiosa.

He has already published several solo albums, including Cantopiano, Avanti!, and Adelante.

He is overall not very well known, which really is a pity, as he’s probably one of the most amazing pianists we have today in Jazz. In a way, he probably is a “musician’s musician”, admired by many of his peers, but unfortunately not yet a household name.

Part of the problem is that is seems to be very hard for Jazz musicians today to find global distribution of their albums. Many albums of Europe-based artists often take months to be released in the US. How this is possible in the day of the Global internet still puzzles me, but probably relates to the fact that rights for music are still being negotiated on a country by country basis like back in the 1950s. A very sad state of affairs.

Another issue here maybe Mirabassi himself, he’s moderately active on social media, but his website hasn’t been updated for quite a bit and doesn’t even feature his latest album.

Giovanni Mirabassi – Live in Germany

Giovanni Mirabassi Live in Germany CamJazz 2017

This album is still very recent, but was actually recorded in 2014. This album was recorded in front of a lucky audience at Bauer Studios in Germany.

Unlike Jarrett, this is not simply totally improvised, we’ re talking about actual songs here as a basis. You’ll get standards made popular by the great Ella Fitzgerald, but also features songs by Edith Piaf and Mercedes Sosa.

This is probably his best solo album to date. Or maybe it is to me because I simply love standards. He plays around with the melodies, sometimes only sticks to the chord structure, but you`ll always recognize the beautiful tunes. I just love it.

I strongly recommend you check this out, and even more to see him live!

My rating: 4 stars

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

Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

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

First time at the Elbphilharmonie – finally! Xavier de Maistre’s Harp fireworks with William Christie

The Hamburg Elbphilharmonie

Hamburg’s latest addition to the number of beautiful classical venues, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall overlooking the harbor, is a true masterpiece by Swiss architects Herzog and de Meuron. Completed several years after plan and hugely over budget, most of Hamburg’s population has already forgiven all the bad planning (and their tax euros gone) seeing this beauty finally come alive.

I was lucky enough to buy tickets more than 6 months ago, because since the official opening tickets are basically only available through the black market. Huge media coverage including the New York Times didn’t really help. Well, at least we now have a classical venue that is most likely sold out for years, many other places would be happy to have such a problem, with ageing population and less people interested in classical music.

DSCF5302 Weihnachten 2016

The Elbphilharmonie Plaza

I had been to what is called the “Plaza” (see above), basically the publicly accessible space between the only brick harbor warehouse and the  new steel and glass construction on top, which houses not only the concert hall, but also a hotel, several restaurants, and even some private apartments. If you’re in Hamburg, check it out, the views and the architecture are spectacular. It is located within the fully new part of town call Hafencity, which on its own is already worth a visit.

This time, last Sunday, was my first time in the actual large hall. I had heard wonders about the supposedly fabulous acoustics and had seen pictures from the inside. But actually being in there is just amazing.

I’ve previously been to other beautiful concert halls, like the Berlin Philharmonie that inspired this new layout of the audience sitting all around the orchestra, the KKL in Lucerne, or the Disney Concert hall in LA, but this beats them all.

Elbphilharmonie interior Grosser Saal (c) 2017 Musicophile

Inside the Elbphilharmonie: Grosser Saal

The only issue I have withthis venue is that most walls  look like they’ve been covered in egg cartons. And actually, they kind of are, an acoustic measure to optimize the sound experience.

William Christie – Les Arts Florissants – Xavier de Maistre 

I went to see a rather atypical ensemble for this hall: William Christie’s Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants. This great period ensemble is well known for their baroque performances, I had seen them once before at the Barbican Hall (a much less beautiful venue) in London in a great performance of Purcell’s Didon and Aeneas.

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, Les Arts Florissants Elbphilharmonie March 26, 2017 (c) Musicophile

Xavier de Maistre, William Christie, and Les Arts Florissants at Elbphilharmonie

Here they went into a repertoire a little bit later than their typical fare, as they were playing Harp concertos from the time of Marie-Antoinette, as in their recently released album.

So we got exposed to some lesser known composers such as Johann Baptist Krumpholz and Johann David Hermann (the literature for harp concertos isn’t very large).

The concert opened with a lively played Kleine Nachtmusik (Little Night Music), one of the most well known Mozart pieces. It is not my favorite and I had never heard it play live, but it was a refreshing opener.

Krumpholz concerto wasn’t really my cup of tea, so I spent the 2nd half of the part before the break admiring the beautiful venue.

After the break and a glass of Cremant de Loire, Christie started with Haydn.  And to answer my own question: no you don’t have to be Italian to conduct Haydn, being an American living in France will do just well. The performance of symphony no. 85, La Reine, was impressive, and made the small ensemble sound at times nearly like a full Beethoven orchestra.

And then things were wrapped up with de Maistre back on stage and Herman’s harp concerto, a much more convincing piece to my ears than Krumpholz.

All in all, a hugely enjoyable evening. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on Elbphilharmonie tickets, go for it!

Shai Maestro Trio – Live At Moods – What A Night

Shai Maestro

I’ve been a fan of Shai Maestro since his very first solo album, see also this very early blog post of mine: This Avishai Cohen Alumni Will Go Places. I even put his debut album in My 25 Essential Jazz albums.

His most recent album I had more trouble with, most likely I just didn’t get it.

But when I saw he was playing again at Moods in Zurich (exactly 2 years after his first concert there, which I also saw), and I happened to be in town, I knew I had to see him.

And I’m extremely glad I did.

Shai Maestro Trio – Live At Moods Zürich – March 17, 2017

 

The concert was obviously mainly focused on his latest album, the Stone Skipper.

And as much as I didn’t get it when listening to the album, everything became extremely clear when listening to it live.

Shai Maestro during the concert mentioned that they don’t have a set playlist. They just have a common list of songs, but basically are guided by the mood of the evening.

Shai Maestro on piano live at Moods March 17, 2017 (c) Musicophile

Shai Maestro

I guess the mood at Moods must have been good, because we got an amazing performance.

What sets this trio, that includes Jorge Roeder on bass, and Ziv Ravitz on drums, apart, is how much complexity they can blend into something that sounds so effortless.

Most jazz consists of simple 4/4 rythms. Not so here, the rythmic complexities that Ravitz pulls off and that his colleagues are following so easily, are so impressive, that when occasionally he switches to a regular 4/4 beat people start laughing because it sounds so simple in comparison.

Jorge Roeger with Shai Maestro Live at Moods March 17 2017 (c) Musicophile

Jorge Roeder

Same goes fro the melodic complexities of Maestro. But unlike with some Jazz musicians, complexity is never a self-serving intellectual exercise, but always serves the mood of the piece, and is actually quite accessible even to non Jazz musicians.

Jorge Roeder, as a typical bass player, never puts himself at the forefront, but what an artist he is as well. The synergy between these three outstanding musicians it amazing.

Ziv Ravitz with Shai Maestro Live At Moods Mar 17 2017 (c) Musicophile

Ziv Ravitz

 

Maestro probably will never play standards (he jokingly said “I won’t play Autumn Leaves”), but this trio really creates their very own world, and a world you don’t want to leave again.

The audience agreed, and got the band to play 3 encores, and probably would have stayed for another 5 if possible.

So if you love Jazz, or even if you don’t, check out his website and his tour calendar, and do yourself a favor of experiencing this trio live.

I’ve been to many concerts in my life, this was one of the most memorable experiences I had.

Sorry for the many superlatives in this review, but I was simply blown away.

My rating: 5 stars

Rémi Geniet Plays Beethoven Sonatas – A Review

Beethoven’s piano sonatas

I haven’t written about Beethoven’s piano sonatas yet on this blog, except for mentioning Igor Levit’s beautiful rendition of the late piano sonatas here.

Why? No idea. It is such a massive body of work, 32 sonatas, no really weak stuff in there, the late sonatas being particularly challenging. How do you attack such a mountain, or more precisely mountain range?

Rémi Geniet

Rémi Geniet, a young French pianist, must have asked himself the same question. His answer is an album that covers 4 sonatas from the very early op. 2 to the very late op. 110.

Who is Rémi Geniet? A young (born 1992) French pianist, who released a beautiful Bach album two years ago that was highly praised. He also won several competitions including the Horowitz International Competition in Kiew.

Geniet Plays Beethoven Sonatas

Rémi Geniet Beethoven Piano Sonatas Mirare 2017 24/96

From Bach to Beethoven. A small step? Well not really, actually anything but.  But Geniet manages this challenge beautifully.

You get a mix from Beerhovens sonata cycle, as mentioned above from the very early sonata no. 2 to the penultimate sonata no. 31.

The really famous sonata here is the “Moonshine“, no. 14, probably the piano piece that even non classical listeners will have heard at some point. Attacking such an earworm is obviously tricky, we all have some form of reference in our head. And what references, from Schnabel, to Arrau, to Brendel, or more recently Paul Lewis or Ronald Brautigam.

How does he compare against such great names of the piano? Well, actually, quite well.
Take the first movement. This, if done badly, can drown in kitsch. No kitsch here, you get  simplicty, very clean playing , no “fuzz”. But actually, this makes the entire experience nevertheless extremely intense.

He takes extremely technically challengingthird movement (Presto agitato) breathtakingly fast, but with extreme precision. Again, this is truly impressive.

All this really comes without neglecting musical substance. Take for example the sonata no. 31. Beethoven’s late sonatas, like his late string quartets, are works of extreme intellectual substance. You simply cannot gloss over them. Pianists typically only tackle them later in the career. But here, similar to Levit mentioned above, Geniet just goes for it, and very successfully.

Overall rating: 4 stars (at certain moments of playing I’d give a 5 star, but there is so much competition out there in the Beethoven space, that it is hard to consistently outperform all the piano legends).

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