It’s Christmas Season again! – Musicophile’s Favorite Seasonal Music

Unfortunately, an infection has stopped me from progressing on some new reviews.

So in the meantime, allow me to remind you about the beautiful music I’ve written about that you can enjoy in this beautiful season.

I’m not religious at all, but Christmas time in Europe still is a special moment to all of us, and this music will always be intrinsically linked to the smells of gingerbread and the like.

The Nutcracker

Let’s start all the way East: with the Nutcracker, probably the most seasonal ballet by Tchaikovsky. My favorite version remains Rattle, but I’m currently listening to a recent version by Gergiev that I plan to review shortly.

Tchaikovsky The Nutcracker Simon Rattle Berliner Philharmoniker EMI Classics

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

Let’s move on to the all time classic of the period: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

I have several favorite versions here, but have yet to check out the recent release of John Butt and the Dunedin Consort, which got good reviews.

Bach Christmas Oratorio John Eliot Gardiner Monteverdi Choir English Baroque Soloists DG Archiv 1987

Bach’s Christmas Cantatas

Bach also has written some lesser know cantatas for the Christmas period, that are very much worth checking out, particularly in this version.

Bach: In Tempore Nativitatis - Weihnachten Kantanten - Christmas Cantatas - Canates de Noël - Ricercar Consort Philippe Pierlot Mirare

Händel’s Messiah

Moving from Bach to Händel, the Messiah is the other BIG Christmas work that you really cannot be missing. I’ve been “lazy” and have recommended not only one, but three excellent versions in this previous post.

Handel: Messiah - Emannuelle Haïm Le Concert d'Astree Erato 24/96

Christmas Jazz

And finally, if you’re more into Jazz, there is my blog post on my five favorite Christmas Jazz albums.

Diana Krall Christmas Songs Verve

Wishing all of you a peaceful holiday period!

Another Disappointing New Release by Seong-Jin Cho

Seong-Jin Cho

Cho is the winner of last years Warsaw Chopin competition, that in the past used to launch piano legends, e.g. Krystian Zimerman, or Martha Argerich.

However, in my previous review of his debut recording, I already was quite surprised by the choice of last years jury.

And unfortunately, his latest release, a full Chopin album with the piano concerto no. 1 and the ballades, confirms my disappointment.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades – Seong-Jin Cho (Deutsche Grammophon 2016)

Let’s start with the good part. Piano concerto no. 1 is an overall convincing performance. He uses a lot of rubato, which I really like in Chopin, the brilliant parts are brilliant as expected, but the slower parts also get a well reflected treatment.

We are clearly not yet beating Zimerman’s both recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, but at least this is interesting and worth listening to.

The LSO under Gianandrea Noseda are a quite powerful partner. Let’s face it, the Chopin piano concertos aren’t the most satisfying material for orchestras, they often are nothing more than “background” for the soloist. But their playing here cannot be faulted.

Chopin: PIano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades Seong-Jin Cho, London Symphony Orchestra, Giandandrea Noseda Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/96

The Ballades

The Chopin ballades are just amazingly beautiful. My favorite version is again, Zimerman, as already featured in my Top 10 Classical Pianists posts. Another favorite of mine, Murray Perahia, is also exceptional.

Getting to Cho, something is just wrong. The slow parts are often just plain boring, I can’t even fully put my finger on it.

When it gets fast, like after 2 min into Ballade No. 2 he becomes impressive, but more technically than musically, unfortunately.

It is very clear that Cho has amazing technical reserves that are barely even challenged here in these works. Maybe he would be perfect for Liszt, but here in the simple ballades, what you really need are nuances, and these are missing to my simple ear.

It pains my heart writing this, but I don’t think Cho is up there with his peers from previous competitions.

Let me know what you think, do you agree? Disagree? Think I’m completely nuts? Please share your comments.

My rating: 3 stars

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

UPDATE January 5, 2016: By now, some other reviewers have had more positive opinions than me about this album, I’d say the general consensus is around 4 stars. Doesn’t change my personal rating but I wanted to flag this to ensure you get a balanced view.

 

A Multitude Of Angels – A review of the “new” Keith Jarrett solo album recorded by Jarrett himself

Ah, yet another blog post that starts with me complaining that I’m not writing often enough. I guess you don’t care about my excuses, so let me just say I really try to improve the frequency of my writing. So let’s stop whining and get into it.

A New Keith Jarrett Recording?

So, a new Keith Jarrett album! Out of the blue (at least to me)! Very nice surprise obviously for a blog that has Jarrett in the sub-title.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: I personally find the title quite cheesy (although Jarrett is very serious about it in the liner notes), and the cover even more so (which is sad given that I do quite like the general ECM sober cover style).

But let’s face it, you won’t buy this album for the title nor the cover, but for the music.

And we’re talking about A LOT of music. Should you decide to buy this on CD (do people still do this?), you’ll get 5 of them, should you decide to download, you may initially be disappointed to get only 12 files, but you’re still getting 4h57 for your money!

A Multitude Of Angels (ECM 2016)

Keith Jarrett A Multitude Of Angels Modena Ferrara Torino Genova Solo Concerts ECM 2016

So where is this album all over sudden coming from? Well unfortunately it doesn’t comprise any recent concerts, like the one in Lucerne I attended a year and a half ago (I know they were recording that, so I hope it will eventually be released).

In this case, we’re talking about 20 year old material. These are live recordings from four concerts in Northern Italy, as you see from the cover specifically Modena, Ferrara, Torino, and Genova, all in October 1996.

We were lucky, at the time, Jarrett hat a DAT recorder (one of the earliest portable digital recording techniques) and some microphones with him and was taping his own concerts.

In the liner notes, Jarrett explains that he’s listened to these recordings many times and claims them to be “a pinnacle in his career”. Lucky for us, we finally get to share this pleasure.

How do you describe 5 hours of improvised music?

Well to make it short, I don’t even try. Let me just summarize my impressions: These are indeed beautiful recordings. Are these to my ears the pinnacle of Jarrett’s career? I personally wouldn’t go as far. We’re still in the “old days” of Jarrett’s concerts with long 40 min uninterupted playing, very shortly before he had to take a break for health reasons. While there really is a lot to love here, my only point of criticism would be that sometimes I’d have liked a bit more stylistic variability.

So if you’re a first time Jarrett solo concert buyer, and you won’t get the cheap price on Qobuz (see last paragraph), you may want to go for some other concerts first, like the legendary Köln, or Bremen Lausanne. But if you like Keith Jarrett’s solo concerts, this one is clearly one to go for.

My rating: 4 stars.

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

 

Murray Perahia’s French Suites – A Must Have

Japanese Art – Ukiyo-e

I must admit while I feel at least somehow reasonably comfortable with my understanding of Western art and paintings, I’m pretty ignorant when it gets to Japanese art.

Nevertheless, Bach’s music often reminded me of the the abstracted image I have in my head of Japanese art (mainly the Ukiyo-e style) often depicting landscapes, with delicate details of trees and flowers.

Why am I writing this here? Well, the latest recording by Murray Perahia makes me permanently think of this. These Japanese artworks often are woodblock prints. This essentially woks by chiseling away wood around the outlines of the drawing.

Murray Perahia’s French Suites

Well, in a way, that is exactly how I hear Perahia play these little miniature gems that are the French suites. He chisels away all everything superfluous and only leaves you with the outlines, and what remains is something of outstanding beauty.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

My first encounter, as so often with Bach, was via the Glenn Gould recordings, and I also had the version by Keith Jarrett for a long time. Since then I’ve added about 3-4 other versions to my collection.

However, this really is the new star for me. I’ve listed Perahia in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists post, especially for his Bach (his Goldberg are among my absolute best versions there are out there).

And here again, he doesn’t disappoint. This is intellectual and emotional at the same time, something which is sometimes hard to achieve with Bach’s keyboard music, as artists tend to focus either on one or the other.

Here’s the official trailer so you get an idea what to expect:

By the way, Gramophone agrees and has listed this as their “Editor’s Choice” for their November issue. Classica is also globally positive,  giving 4 stars (the highest rating below the CHOC, their equivalent of a five star).

No hesitation on my side however:

My rating: 5 stars

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

UPDATE Nov 29: if you need any further reassurance: French magazine Diapason has given this album it’s highest rating, the Diapason d’or, in the November issue. And it was named “recording of the month” by BBC Music magazine.

Musicophile’s Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists

Top 10 and Best-Ofs

I don’t do top 10 lists often. I probably should to them more often, as if you’re a blogger you know that they tend to generate higher than average traffic, somehow either Google or more likely the average reader tends to like this kind of lists (and I must admit, I tend to click on other peoples “best of lists” as well), but I usually prefer to write about individual albums instead.

My Personal Top 10 Pianists

That said, the idea for this particular blog post came along while doing some comparative listening for a future blog post on Schubert’s piano sonatas. I noticed I always keep going back to a certain number of pianists, that I love and respect, and that usually always have something to say.

Obviously, this list is highly subjective. This is not supposed to be “Great pianists of the century” or Top 100 pianists of all times, you’ll find plenty of those on the internet already.

So obviously, there will be great names missing, Schnabel, Arrau, Rubinstein, Brendel, Trifonov, etc. etc. etc.

I’ll be listing them in alphabetical order, as there is absolutely no way I’ll try to rank them.

So, here we go:

  • Leif Ove Andsnes

Not very suprisingly, given that I’ve already listed him here for my all time favorite version of Grieg’s piano concerto, and have praised his recent Beethoven cycle with the Chamber orchestra of Europe.

I’ve seen him live playing Beethoven’s concerti 2-4 in a row, without a conductor. An amazing experience.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Andsnes has also recorded an excellent version of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos with Antonio Pappano, which I have yet to review.

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I guess that covers such a large range of the romantic piano concertos that it is pretty clear why I’m choosing him. Note I could have mentioned many other beautiful recordings, including solo piano or chamber music.

 

  • Martha Argerich

Well I said I’m not going to rank the pianists, but Martha clearly makes it all the way to the top of the list.

With her, you can really start at the beginning, with her legendary debut album following her winning the 1965 Warsaw Chopin competition. 

Or go to a very recent recording around 50 years later of Argerich playing Mozart’s concertos, as mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Or, for the sake of it, pretty much everything she has recorded in between. The only exception are some of the live recordings from her beloved Lugano festival, not all of them are necessarily must haves. But beyond that, you can be sure that her energy to enchant you!

Here is another example:

Martha Argerich Rachmaninov 3 Tchaikovsky 1 Riccardo Chailly Kirill Kondrashin

There are several “complete”, “best of”  and “collection” boxes out there. All are highly recommended.

 

  • Rafal Blechacz

Together with Benjamin Grosvenor and Igor Levit, among the youngest on this lists.

I had to list him already for his outstanding Chopin Préludes, as reviewed previously.

Another recording I can recommend is his Debussy and Szymanowksi album from 2012.

Debussy Szymanowksi Rafal Blechacz Deusche Grammophone 2012

I’ve seen him live play Chopin and Szymanowski, and I was really impressed by this timid young man and the intimacy of his playing. Somebody to watch.

 

  • Ronald Brautigam

Playing on an “authentic” piano that sounds like the composer would have heard the piece is a relatively recent trend, as techniques in the reconstruction of the fortepiano, and alongside the specific playing skills for these instruments have evolved.

I’ve already mentioned his beautiful version of Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (review of part I here, part II here).

However, what I recommend most often is his outstanding complete Beethoven sonata cycle. Obviously this doesn’t replace the efforts on modern piano from Schnabel to today, but you really owe it to yourself to discover how Beethoven can sound on a piano of that time, exceptionally well played by this amazing artist.

7318599920009_600

 

  • Emil Gilels

Why Gilels as a representative of the great pianists of the 1950s-70s, and not Rubinstein, or Richter, or Horowitz?

Well, honestly, all of them would have deserved to be listed here. I’m just having a very special attraction to his Brahms concertos, be it with Jochum (reviewed here) or with Fritz Reiner and the CSO.

Another album that is his outstanding recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, an all time classic.

 

Edvard Grieg Lyric Pieces Emil Gilels Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

 

  • Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve just recently praised his latest album, Homages (review here), and given 5 stars to his Chopin Liszt Ravel album here. He was also nominated for the Gramophone awards for his album Dances in 2015, which he should have won (IMHO).

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

He is probably the youngest of my list (note to self, do some fact checking), and among his few recordings, all are just amazing. This is one of the most outstanding talents I’m aware of.

 

  • Igor Levit

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve praised this great young artist several times already.

Most lately for his Gramophone Album of the Year: Bach / Beethoven /Rzewski, see here for my review, and here as well, as well as in my article about the top 5 classical albums of 2015.

Back in 2015, his Bach Partitas album was also nominated by Gramophone for an Award in the Instrumental category.

But there is one album I haven’t mentioned yet on my blog, which I also like very much, his debut on Sony.

And no, he didn’t start easy, he tackled immediately Beethoven’s late piano sonatas.

Igor Levit Beethoven The Late Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24 96 2015

And how! This is not only technically impressive (the Hammerklavier always is) but such a high level of musicality. Again, watch this artist!

 

  • Ivan Moravec

Very simply, for the most beautiful Chopin Nocturne recording there is, see my review here. But basically, his other Chopin is also excellent. I actually don’t have any recording from other composers by him. I’ll investigate!

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

 

  • Murray Perahia

No idea why I haven’t written more about Perahia. I’ve mentioned him as one of my favorite Goldberg players, and his Bach in general is excellent (will need to write about his new French suites at some point).

But fundamentally, this is one of the pianists that really adds new insights to whatever he touches. Never flashy, never show-off, but always nuanced.

As an example, let me take his Schumann, which is among the best recordings I know of these little gems:

Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Fantasiestücke Murray Perahia CBS Sony

 

  • Krystian Zimerman

Again, an artist I haven’t mentioned enough. A living legend to me, winner of the 1975 Chopin competition in Warsaw (he’s the third from this illustrous list, together with Argerich and Blechacz).

Which album to mention? Usually he records relatively few albums, so you can pretty much trust them to be top notch in general.

My preferred is probably his Chopin Ballades:

Chopin: 4 Ballades, Barcarolle, Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Gramophon

I’ve heard him play live couple of years ago, including the Barcarolle. He maybe the most intellectual pianist I’m aware of, and you can hear the cerebral approach he takes. That said, this isn’t to say that his music isn’t full of emotion.

I could also have mentioned his Chopin piano concerto recordings, be it with the LA Phil or the Polish Festival orchestra, both are among the best there is for these works.

 

What do You think?

So, here we go. What do you think? Do you agree, disagree? Did I miss anybody (I’m sure I did, with this artificial cut off of 10). Please let me know?

You can find the albums mentioned here in the respective links to previous posts, or below:

 

Why Bother Reading Reviews If There Is No Consensus? The Example Of Esfahani’s New Goldberg Variations?

Professional Music Reviews

I’ve been very clear on my blog here that whatever I’m writing is nothing more than my personal view on the music and interpretations I write about.

You’d think that it should be different for professional reviewers. OK, maybe nuances according to individual tastes, but a good album is a good one, and a bad one is bad, right?

Well, I’ve previously given already one example of a Mahler album that received extremly contrasting reviews from two of the most respected classical review magazines out there, UK-based Gramophone, and French Classica.

And here we go again:

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani (Deutsche Gramophon 2016)

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Mahan Esfahani (24/48) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Mahan Esfahani is one of the rising stars on the harpsichord. I’ve briefly mentioned him in my musing’s on the Gramophone Awards 2015, but haven’t properly reviewed any of his albums yet.

I really liked his previous album Time Present And Time Past that went from Scarlatti to Reich.

So I was very curious about his take of the Goldberg Variations. I’ve previously praised Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Igor Levit on a modern piano. Both remain favorites of mine, but I have dozens alternatives.

Gramophone and Classica totally disagree

But before I get into my personal assessment, let me get back to my opening comment: How professional reviewers can disagree, in the most drastic possible way.

October Issue Gramophone: “His navigations of the music’s structure […] is carefully considered without sounding in the least bit studied, or different for the sake of being different. His Goldberg Variations clearly belongs […] in all serious Bach collections”. They even gave it a Gramophone Award.

October Issue Classica: “Il donne même l’impression de réinventer le Bach machine à coudre” (he even leaves the impression of reinventing the “sewing machine” Bach style), or “errements d’un jeu qui se laisse aller à un rubato et des manières agacants” (this is a bit harder to translate, but basically they find the same freedom that Gramophone likes above totally annoying), and speak of “La première version post baroque” (the first post-baroque version). Result: 2 out of 5 stars, which is their  way of saying “disappointing”.

So what is it? Does a disappointing album belong in all serious Bach collections? I don’t blame you for being confused.

But this is my point, right? You can never use any kind of review individually. You can try to find a magazine (or even better, individual reviewer) that has a similar taste to yours, but then need to make up your own mind.

Side note: This is why I love streaming so much, as you can simply try out new music as much as you want before buying. But please, don’t forget to buy stuff you really like, if you want the musician to make a living.

To close this chapter on reviews, what is helpful if you find “meta-reviews”, that compares and contrast several individual reviewers. If you find consensus among many reviewers, you probably have a higher chance of finding something truly exceptional. Classica every month does just that, unfortunately only comparing French reviewers, they call that table “Les Coups de Coeurs” and summarize the opinions of 6 different French classical music specialists from Le Figaro to France Musique. But I don’t think anybody does this at an international level.

So what do I think about this album?

Now it get’s difficult. Esfahani’s recording is clearly VERY different.

What I love about it is the sound of the harpsichord, a two keyboard reconstruction that has a splendid sound (and isn’t ruined to much by Deutsche Gramophones sound engineers).

About the version? You’d think this is a love or hate recording. Well actually, it isn’t. I’ve now listened to it at least 5 or 6 times, but it doesn’t touch me as much as a Goldberg recording should. I’m just a bit indifferent. I clearly see how this recording is different, and why Esfahani does what he does, but I don’t think this version will get a lot of additional spins on my system. I’d go to Hantaï, or Levit, or Perahia, or, or, or.

My rating: 3 stars

 

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

Il Canto Delle Montagne – Beautiful Trio Jazz by Thierry Maillard

Streaming

I mentioned before that I subscribe to a streaming subscription. This truly is an amazing music discovery tool. It’s like having a huge record shop (remember those) in your own house and on the go 24/7.

I was late to the game and started streaming less than 18 month ago. How stupid of me.

Well obviously, there’s the issue that artists don’t make enough money from streaming. That’s why I, even if I don’t have to, I end up buying albums from the relevant artists I really like anyhow, and everybody should do the same, or even better, go to see them live if you can.

That said, for browsing and discovering new stuff there is simply nothing better.

Thierry Maillard: Il Canto Delle Montagne

The other day I was going through Qobuz “Nouveautés” on my Iphone (I use their app in French, the translations can occasionally be a bit clunky, although they are getting more international these days). I have the genres set to “Classique “and “Jazz”, so new albums in both categories show up here.

More out of boredom I clicked on a relatively ugly cover, a picture of a mountain scene with the Italian title “Il Canto Delle Montagne”. Even my quite poor Italian tells me this means “The Song of the Mountains” in a pretty ugly font (see below). I was expecting something either very rural or very esoteric.

Thierry Maillard Andre Ceccarelli Dominique di Piazza Il Canto Delle Montagne 24/88 2016 Ilona Records

Then I started playing. And noticed I got a really nice piano trio. I clicked on the album cover to enlarge and finally noticed in small white letters that we’re talking about Thierry Maillard’s latest album.

I knew this French pianist from his 2013 album Beyond the Ocean, which I really liked. OK, so moving from the sea to the mountains now.

Now what should you expect from this album? Well, the easiest is to click on the Youtube link below to get an idea, but basically this is very melodic trio jazz, in the way I realyl like it. André Ceccarelli is a French drum legend, who’s played a lot of jazz but also with pop artists like Sting or Tina Turner. He is one of the best drummers France has to offer.

I must admit I didn’t know Dominique Di Piazza, the French bassist, but it turns out he played with John McLaughlin in the past. He doesn’t limit himself to the traditional upright double bass, but goes into electric bass playing quite a bit.

Therefore, very experienced personnel here, and it shows. They pay a lot of attention to each other, and therefore each of the 16 tracks, are worth discovering. We’re not getting a lot of standards, but originals. Some background reading about the album tells me it was essentially composed after the Bataclan terrorist attacks in Paris. However, there’s no terror in here, just beauty.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)