A Quick Look at Gramophone’s November Edition Editor’s Picks

Gramophone

To this day, Gramophone Magazine is probably THE reference for classical music reviews.

I haven’t always been fully aligned with their latest recommendations. For example, Hillary Hahn’s new recording of the Bach violin sonatas they have as recording of the month in November, which I personally don’t really like, way too much vibrato for me.

Give me Milstein, Szeryng, or Isabelle Faust anytime instead.

Hilary Hahn Plays Bach Sonatas 1&2 Partita 1 Decca 2018

 

 

However, beyond this, there are a lot of familiar albums I’ve previously recommended on this blog:

 

Vikingur Olafsson – Johann Sebastian Bach

Víkingur Ólafsson Johann Sebastian Bach Vikingur Olafsson Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

See my review here. Gramophone talks about “glowing lyricism and sparkling virtuosity”. Fully agree.

 

Igor Levit, Life

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Gramophone says “A triumph of imaginative programming that ranges from Bach to Rzewski, and elevated further by masterly pianism“. Yep, see also my thoughts here.

And finally, there’s an album I really like, have purchased, but didn’t get to review it yet:

Schubert: String Quartets No. 9 and 14 “Death and the Maiden” – Chiaroscuro Quartet – BIS 2018

Schubert String Quartet No. 14 Death and the Maiden No. 9 Chiaroscuro Quartet  24/96 BIS

I’m a big fan of the young Chiaroscuro quartet, which features Alina Ibragimova as first violin. The previous recording I bought from them is an excellent Haydn op. 20.

This latest recording is also excellent. Gramophone says it is “played with enourmous conviction and power by this very stylish ensemble”. I can’t really comment on the stylishness of the musician, but I fully agree that this album is strongly recommended. I hope I’ll get around to a formal review eventually, but in the meantime, it won’t replace my favorite versions by the Takacs and Pavel Haas Quartets, but it is a truly worthwile addition to the catalogue and worth having!

You can find it here (eclassical).

The links to the other albums you’ll find in my original reviews (see links above).

Víkingur Ólafsson’s Beautiful Bach

Should Bach be romantic?

Let me start by asking the more fundamental question: Should Bach be “allowed” to be played on a contemporary piano?

I personally think Bach wouldn’t have minded. Keyboard instruments were under constant evolution during his time, he was very open to adapting music from one instrument to another (and often did so with his own work). Now, what Bach would have done had he been able to ever play a modern Steinway is a very interesting, if rather theoretical question.

Now, does playing on a modern piano allow you to have a “romantic” sound while playing good old JSB?  Let’s explore this thought with this recently released album.

Víkingur Ólafsson: Johann Sebastian Bach

Víkingur Ólafsson Johann Sebastian Bach Vikingur Olafsson Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Víkingur Ólafsson is only the second Icelandic musician I know (Silly Bjork jokes, anybody?).

He rose to fame at rather young age with his Philipp Glass album (and being signed by Deutsche Grammophon), now he releases his first venture into Bach.

To give you an example what I mean by “romantic”, is track no. 31, the adagio from BWV974. In a way, this could easily be the slow movement of a Mendelssohn or Schubert work.

Do I mind? Au contraire, I really like this album. It is a very personal approach, a very personal selection of material as well. But it never falls into the trap of being the only thing you’re not allowed to be with Bach, which is boring.

To make this album even more appealing to me, we get yet another piano transcription of one of the violin partitas (see here for my original article on the topic)

And also when you take individual well known works like the excerpts of the Well Tempered Clavier, it is very apparent that Olafsson knows what he’s doing, even compared to famous reference versions.

So to answer my initial question: it’s a very clear yes!

My rating: 4 stars

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

Well, I Actually DO Like Scarlatti – A Review of Jean Rondeau’s Latest Recording

Domenico Scarlatti

I had written previously some time ago that I don’t particularly like Scarlatti. Or to be more precise, to quote myself “I’ve never heard any Scarlatti that has touched me”.

I got quite a lot of readers comments on this, recommending some very good recordings of Scarlatti. And while there were some that I found somewhat interesting (e.g. Pletnev), I still really hadn’t found my way into the universe of Scarlatti.

I’m pleased to report I’ve finally found the first Scarlatti album I go back to on a regular basis.

Scarlatti: Sonatas – Jean Rondeau (Erato 2018)

Scarlatti Sonatas Jean Rondeau Erato 2018 (24/96) Warner Classics

I’ve mentioned Rondeau’s very good Bach album here; I really like this young French harpsichord player.

So I was naturally curious about his take on Scarlatti? Would it finally be for me?

Well, I’ve given it away above, the answer is a clear yes.

To be fair, an important factor is the very beautiful sound of the harpsichord Rondeau is playing, apparently a quite recent construction built in 2006 after historic German models by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto just has a fantastic roundness, and none of the sometimes annoying characteristics of the harpsichord that can be annoying for longer listening sessions.

Rondeau,  winner of the first prize at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, plays these with a power, energy, and conviction that is just blowing me away. Some other Scarlatti recordings sometimes can have that “typewriter” playing, none of that here.

I’m curious to hear what the Scarlatti experts, which I’m clearly not, will be saying about this new album.

In the meantime, I can strongly recommend you check it out!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

Igor Levit – Life – A Beautiful Treasure

Does Gramophone read my blog?

I presume not, but it’s a nice coincidence that just a short time after I write a dedicated blog post about the piano transcriptions of Bach’s Chaconne, Gramophone releases a complete review of all historic recordings of Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne. That’s great news for me as well, as there a lot of versions I haven’t checked out yet.

One very new one is also not yet mentioned in this review article, which brings us to this album.

Igor Levit – Life (Sony Classical 2016)

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If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a huge Levit fan. Not only I’ve praised his Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski album, but to me he is clearly one of my favorite pianists of all times.

He has a very particular style. There is a certain perfectionism (his outstanding technique clearly helps), but it is never going towards the mechanical perfection of some virtuosos, the perfectionism, particularly about timing, is always serving the music.

Levit doesn’t tend to be a virtuoso in general, he could easily be with his mastering of the piano, but he really never shows off. In many way, it is a very introvert way of playing which makes it even more interesting.

This album in many ways shows an even more intimate side of Levit. It is a very personal selection of music, from Busoni, via Schumann, to Rzewski and even Bill Evans. The common thread of the album can be found in the title, “Life”, as this album was strongly influenced by the death of a close friend of Levit.

The album starts with two transcriptions by Busoni of Bach originals. The Chaconne is a very good example of the intimate style I described above, in many ways it is the complete opposite of the somewhat overwhelming fireworks in fascinating recording of the same work by the young Benjamin Grosvenor.

We continue with a rarely played variations work by Schumann, which makes me really hope that Levit will record more of his work. I’d love to hear his take on the Davidsbündlertänze or the Kreisleriana.

Another highlight of this album are the two Wagner transcriptions, from Parsifal and Tristan. I must admit not being a great fan of Wagner in general (this is actually the first time this composer even appears on this blog), but he clearly has written some great harmonies.

The album wraps up with one of my favorite compositions of Bill Evans, the simple Peace Piece from the 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. 

There really couldn’t be a better ending to this very particular, personal album than this solemn, simple, but breathtakingly beautiful interpretation.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

 

A Review of a VERY BIG Rach2 by Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin – Stunning

Daniil Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a big fan of both artists (e.g. see here for my review their previous Rachmaninov album, or here for a report my recent experience of Nézet-Séguin live, or just use the search function).

Trifonov is without doubt one of the best pianists of our age, and I start to regret not having included him in my list of my Top 10 classical pianists, maybe that blog post needs an update at some point. And Nézet-Séguin is on his path to be one of the truly great conductors of the 21st century.

So when I saw they just released the legendary Rach 2 together, I bought the album immediately.

Destination Rachmaninov: Departure. Piano concertos No. 2 & 4 – Daniil Trifonov – Yannick Nézet-Séguin – The Philadelphia Orchestra

 

Daniil Trifonov Yannick Nézet-Séguin The Philadelphia Orchestra Destination Rachmaninov - Departure Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

There is no lack of great recordings of Rach2. Andsnes, Zimerman, Buniatishvili (although this recording is bit controversial), not to mention the greats like Richter, or even the composer himself.

How to play this piece? Do you try to keep it more factual, or do you go with the full romantic power of the piece?

Some lessons can be taken from the recording of Rachmaninov with Leopold Stokowski, featuring the very same Philadelphia Orchestra than the current recording. And one thing is clear, already at the time (1924), they went BIG. A lot of power, a lot of rubato, a lot of everything. And guess what, that works! (well the composer should know, you’d presume)

Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin take a very big approach here. You can really float in the big sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and soloist and conductor clearly connect. Trifonov clearly is a virtuoso of the highest caliber, so the technical challenges of this massive work just go unnoticed.

Overall, there is a lot of rubato, and the tempo is relatively slow. In some of the slower passages, one even gets reminder of a Bruckner symphony.

Some would argue this is too much. I haven’t seen many reviews yet, but I predict this recording will be a love it or hate it affair.

To make it clear: I love it!

You also get concerto no. 4, but to this day, I’m like quite a large majority of music lovers, I love nos. 2 and 3, and just don’t get 4. So no comment from my side.

What you do get on top is much more interesting, at least to me. Rachmaninov did his transcription of the Violin Partita BWV 1006, a true gem, that I should probably add to my blog post on transcriptions of the Chaconne. Very much worth discovering.

I’m kind of curious about the album title, Departure, and am really wondering where this train takes us next. Let’s hope to an equally spectacular Rach 3!

My rating: 5 stars.

I’m curious to see if my prediction holds true, and there will be both raving and bad reviews of this. I’ll report back when I see them. In the meantime, try before you buy!

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

 

UPDATE Oct 30: Well, my prediction of this being a very controversial album already holds true. Check out the comments of my readers below, and you’ll find both love and hate.

In terms of professional reviews, we generally are very positive so far, with four stars from Richard Fairman in the FT, five stars by Andrew Clements in the Guardian, another five stars by Normal Lebrecht. I’m still curious what Gramophone and Classica will think of this.

In any case, try before you buy!

 

Tord Gustavsen’s The Other Side – Delightful

Tord Gustavsen

I’ve previously written about the rich Jazz scene in Scandinavia, and particularly about Tord Gustavsen, reviewing his album The Ground here.

Gustavsen’s trio has a very particular style, minimal, melodic, and fascinating.

So I was very excited when I saw that Gustavsen’s latest album was just released, and thanks to ECM finally allowing streaming, I could sample it immediately.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side (ECM 2018)

Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side (24/96) ECM 2018

I wasn’t a universal  fan of some of the albums Gustavsen released in the last years, but with his latest album, I’m fully back on board!

The first thing you notice is the cover art, while still in the typical ECM abstract art style, they’ve changed from the dark blue tones of most of the former albums to a bright orange. Does this mean the music is more orange as well?

Well, actually not. This is very typical Gustavsen style, very much reminding me of what I liked so much about The Ground.  Let’s take as an example urack 3 of the album, Re-Melt. It starts with a syncopated rhythm by Jarle Vespestad on drums, and Sigurd Hole on bass. Gustavsen joins a bit later, weaving a beautiful, subdued melody over the rhythm. None of the music on this album is ever over the top, but it will always be one thing: very atmospheric. It always just unfolds slowly, over time.

Recording quality, as usual on ECM, is very good, actually in this particular case it is again quite spectacular.

Check out this album. It may not be for everyone, but if you like this minimalist Nordics style, you really should not hold back!

My rating: 4 stars

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

 

The Legendary Bach Chaconne – My Favorite Keyboard Versions

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

If you follow my blog you know I like Bach. A lot. So how come I’ve never written about one of his greatest masterpieces, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin?

Honestly, no idea. Maybe because while I actually really admire the works, listening to solo violin is really an experience, in spite of all the artistic beauty of the composition, is not something I can bring myself to do everyday.

The most famous piece of the 6 works, BWV 1001-1006 is without doubt the Chaconne in D-minor of BWV1004.

It is mind-blowing not only by it’s length (around 14 min), while the average of the other parts is around 5 min only, but also by the amazing harmonic complexity (See below an example with Hillary Hahn.).

 

My favorite version of the original violin work is by the legendary Nathan Milstein (note there’s a mono and stereo version, plus several live recordings), but others, such as Henryk Szeryng, Isabelle Faust, or Rachel Podger, are also highly recommended.

Nathan Milstein Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin EMI 1954-1965

I found this beautiful quote from Joshua Bell about the Chaconne on Wikipedia: “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”. Well, there you go. And I fully agree.

Nevertheless, these works were largely forgotten for a long time and only rediscovered in the late 18th century by Schumann and Brahms.

Which gives me a perfect segue to what I’ll be writing about. The Chaconne, which is actually quite polyphonic (a daunting task on a solo instrument like the violin), has been transcribed for keyboard instruments many times. And I find myself listening to the keyboard transcriptions more often than the violin original (ok, I’m an amateur pianist myself, so I’m probably biased).

Transcription by Johannes Brahms – Jean Rondeau

One of the first transcriptions was actually done by Johannes Brahms himself, and just to make it “easier”, he wrote it for the left hand only.

It’s been played by many great pianists, like the legendary Krystian Zimerman.

My current favorite version of this piece however was released quite recently by French Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau on his album of Bach transcriptions called Imagine.

Jean Rondeau - Bach - Imagine Erato 24/96

Rondeau plays with a lot of insight and passion and a lot of rubato. In many ways, you can feel some of the romanticism of Brahms in this particular version (which probably is just me making things up, as Brahms didn’t compose this after all). The sound of Rondeau’s cembalo is particularly beautiful on this recording. The rest of the album is equally beautiful and highly recommended.

 

Transcription by Federico Busoni – Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016  

I’ve previously written about the great English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and his beautiful album Homages. He starts this album with the Busoni transcription. Busoni transcription really transforms this solo piece into the sound of an entire orchestra, and requires a true virtuoso to play. Amazing how much the original material of Bach can be transformed and still be of outstanding beauty.

 

Improvision by Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero is another pianist I wanted to write about for a long time. Her specialty is not only being able to play amazing classical music, but to improvise live in front of the audience. Her concerts (and I’ve only been to one of them so far, but want to go again) often include a part where she asks the audience to give their favorite tunes, she picks them up, and starts improvising, like this particular example:

But she also has released albums which include improvisations, like her album Bach and Beyond:

Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond

She also takes the Bach Chaconne and transforms it into something very personal on the piano (much shorter than the original at less than 5 minutes). It is not as impressive as Busoni’s massive version, but her personal touch is so beautiful, this entire album is veyr much worth checking out, and if she ever plays near you, you have to go!

 

You can find the albums here:

Milstein here (Qobuz)

Rondeau here (Qobuz) and here (AcousticSounds)

Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Montero here

 

Update October 30, 2018: Gramophone just published their Gramophone Collection review of all Busoni Chaconne recordings, very much worth reading. A lot of versions for me to check out.

And also note that Igor Levit’s version of the Busoni Chaconne on his new album Life is amazing as well.

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