My Top 5 Classical Albums Of 2018

So, another year has passed. For me, while it has brought a lot of challenging moments, it also brought me a lot of good luck. And particularly, it brought all of us some exciting new recordings.

In the tradition from 2017, 2016, and 2015, so basically each year since I started this blog, let me summarize my top 5 Classical Albums Of The Year.

Yes, partially I do this because Top something lists always generate a lot of clicks (I don’t make any money on this site, so this is purely for my stupid little ego), but it is also a nice tradition to look back at the year.

And hopefully, it will inspire you to buy some of these (again, I’m not making any money here, but the artists do, as they should).

Igor Levit – Life

Yes, I really like Igor Levit. This may be his most personal album to date. In my original review I’ve described it as A Beautiful Treasure. An absolute must have.

Daniel Trifonov Plays Rach 2 and 4

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

Yes, this is one of my favorite Rach 2 ever. But PLEASE BE AWARE that I wrote in my original review (published as one of the first) that this recording will be controversial. It turned out it is, it is a love it or hate it affair. So please do check it out before you buy.

Rachel Podger’s Four Seasons

Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque Channel Classics DSD 2018

Do you really need yet another version of the Four Seasons? Probably not, let’s be realistic. That said, if you are looking for one, you won’t go wrong with this beautiful account, which combines amazing energy with beautiful recording technology. See here for my original review.

Murray Perahia’s Moonlight and Hammerklavier

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Yes, I’m absolutely certain that this is an album that will stand the test of time. The only argument that you could have is whether the best piece here is the Moonlight (my opinion, see here for my review) or the Hammerklavier (many other reviewers). In any case, get this album, even if you already own these works.

Jean Rondeau Plays Scarlatti

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

As I wrote in my original review, I was really surprised to finally find an album that makes me like Scarlatti. Now is this enough of a reason for YOU to buy it? Will check it out, I think you won’t be disappointed.

You will find the download links in the respective original reviews.

Now back to you, what did I miss? Where do you disagree? What were your classical albums of 2018?

Christmas Time Is Here – Two More Beautiful Christmas Jazz Compilations

Christmas Jazz

I’ve already written about my 5 favourite Christmas Jazz albums here, not to mention the recent post about Joey Alexander’s Beautiful Christmas Jazz EP.

But some of my readers complained (rightfully so) that I’ve neglected the Jazz genre a bit on this blog. So just a handful of day before Christmas, let me point you to two beautiful Christmas Jazz compilations by two great labels.

A Concord Jazz Christmas

A Concord Jazz Christmas The Gene Harris Quartet Charlie Byrd

Concord Jazz is a great label that unfortunately has a bit disappeared from the map. Nevertheless, this best of Christmas Jazz is really worth it.

My favorite titles are Scott Hamilton’s Christmas Love Song, and obviously, being a great Gene Harris fan, I’ll Be Home For Christmas. But overall, the album avoids the overly cheesy territory and rather stays on the swinging side. Note that Concord also released a V2 of this album later, which I find much less appealing (even if it has some beautiful tracks)

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz

Verve Presents: The Very Best of Christmas Jazz Ella Fitzgerald, Kenny Burrell, Bill Evans, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson

The legendary Verve label obviously has released a number of Christmas albums over the years. However, this must be one of the best.

Look at the list: Ella Fitzgerald (obviously), but also Kenny Burrell, Shirley Horn, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Oscar Peterson. Kind of the Verve All Stars.

You get a beautiful version of A Child Is Born with Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans Playing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, and even a great Jingle Bells by Jimmy Smith. And yes, it also includes Rudolph, The Rednose Reindeer, Ella’s Christmas classic.

Again, an album that while giving you a nice Christmas feel, avoids the sugary overkill of some more contemporary collections.

Both are highly recommended.

My rating: 4 stars

Wishing all of you some relaxing Christmas days, or whatever other holiday you’re celebrating this year end!

You can find the albums here (Concord) and here (Verve)

Wishing you a Merry Christmas with Joey Alexander

Christmas Music

I was hesitating a moment to call whether I should call this thread “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”, as I’ve no idea what religion my dear readers are following (if at all). 

I then decided against it, for several reasons. A) I’m personally not religious at all, but grew up in Europe where Christmas is the most important holiday and B) I hope that if you’re following any other religion and don’t particularly care for Christmas, you either just skip this post or, even better, still check out the album below, as it is actually really nice.

If you want more Christmas music, be it Jazz or Classical music, I suggest you also check out my Top 5 Christmas Jazz post, my Favorite Seasonal Music, my recommendations for the Messiah, and obviously, the Christmas Oratorio.

A Joey Alexander Christmas (Motema 2018)

A Joey Alexander Christmas (Motema 2018)

This “EP” (a concept really a bit outdated in the world of streaming and downloads) of only 4 tracks features some outstanding musicians.

I haven’t mentioned Joey Alexander yet. A big mistake. It’s actually an amazing story. He comes from the Jazz hotspot of Bali (sorry, cheap pun), and played at the Lincoln centre at the age of 10, and started recording music at the age of 11!!!! Now he still is at the tender age of 15, and if you wouldn’t see it in the video below, you’d have now way of knowing.

He’s playing here both solo and trio. On the trio tracks we get Larry Grenadier of Brad Mehldau fame, on bass, and Eric Harland, who’s played with a lot of Jazz celebrities (MyCoy Tyner, Dave Holland, etc.).

This EP features two seasonally inspired tracks, O Come All Ye Faithful (see the Youtube clip below), and What A Friend We Have In Jesus.

As an add on, we get remastered versions of My Favorite Things, a duo with Larry Grenadier, recorded in 2015 (I’ll let you do the math of Alexander’s age at the time, but its just unbelievable), as well as a solo version of A Wonderful World. Both are just fantastic.

A truly enjoyable album that  you shouldn’t limit only to the Christmas season!

My rating: 4 stars 

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (several others)

Bertrand Chamayou plays Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concertos No. 2 and 5 – A Review

Camille Saint-Saëns

Camille Saint-Saëns is one of those composers that outside of his native France isn’t that well known. Sure, many of us will have heard his most famous piece, Le Carnaval des Animaux (The Carnival of the Animals), if you’re a little bit deeper into classical music, you may know his Organ Symphony (no. 3). 

And typically, that’s where most average classical listeners wits will end. I must admit it was very similar for me until quite recently. In fact, this is the very first time I even write a blot post about this composer. 

However, nicely enough in the recent months, two new recordings of some of his piano concertos were released, triggering my interest. Both feature his apparently most famous concerto, no. 2. The first new release, with Louis Lortie, Edward Gardner, and the BBC Philharmonic, is more complete, featuring also concertos no. 1 & 4. You’ll find it on the Chandos label (and here on Qobuz). However, I overall have a slight preference for the other new release of 2018, namely: 

Saint-Saëns: Piano Concertos No. 2 and 5 – Bertrand Chamayou – Emmanuel Krivine – Orchestre National de France (Erato 2018)

 

The 2nd concerto starts like a Bach solo work, which as a great fan of Johann Sebastian I really appreciate. But obviously, this is concerto of the romantic era (written in 1868), and once the orchestra sets in, there is no doubt about that. The concerto isn’t very “balanced”, the first movement being nearly as long, and “heavier” than the two other movements together. 

You’d never be able to tell this work was written in only 17 days (it was written in a rush for Anton Rubinstein), and it is for a good reason the best known of the concertos.

That said, don’t skip concerto no. 5. It is a bit more intimate, but has many beautiful moments as well.

I’ve praised Chamyou for his beautiful Ravel box, and his playing is brilliant here as well. The ONF does a great job too, I believe they have a natural advantage over foreign orchestras as Saint-Saëns still gets much more air time in his home country and abroad. 

To complete the album, Chamayou also plays several of Saint-Saëns Piano works, which were completely unknown to me. A particularly beautiful example are the 6 Etudes op. 111, that really show a close relationship to Debussy and Ravel, reminding us that Sain-Saëns lived long into the 20th century (he died in 1921).

Overall, a very enjoyable album that I highly recommend

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)

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

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)