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)

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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C.P.E. Bach’s Cello Concertos by Jean-Guihen Queyras – A Review

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach

C.P.E. Bach probably is the best known of the Bach sons, but still is one of those underrated composer that don’t get played enough today.

His music really sits on this very interesting time of transition between baroque music, that his father still epitomises, and the Wiener Klassik period of Haydn and Mozart.

I’m also a bit responsible for not mentioning him enough, so far I’ve reviewed only one album by this composer, his excellent cembalo concertos with Andreas Staier.

Jean-Guihen Queyras

Queyras is one of the best cello players of our generation. He’s been featured on this blog already a couple of times, and typically getting very favourite reviews, e.g. here.

He plays both chamber music (often with Isabelle Faust) and performs as a soloist for orchestral works.

C.P.E. Bach – Cello Concertos – Jean-Guihen Queyras – Riccardo Minasi – Ensemble Resonanz (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Cello Concertos Jean-Guihen Queyras Ensemble Resonanz Riccardo Minasi Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 48

I knew Riccardo Minasi from his past recordings with Il Giardino Armonico and several other baroque ensembles where he was still playing the violin. And I’ve mentioned his excellent activities with the Pomo d’Oro here, but had never heard of Ensemble Resonanz. It turns out its been active since 1994 and is located in Hamburg. Well, you never stop learning.

So, how do they play? Well I must admit for these works I have only a handful of other versions, including for example a recent release on Erato with Truls Mørk, and Ophelie Gaillard on Aparté.

How does this recording compare? Well, it really hasn’t have to hide. It is joyful, energetic, and nuanced. This really is a prime example that this composer deserves to be heard more!

Queyras’ sound on the cello is beautiful, not too heavy, but with a nice singing tone. He really nicely integrates with Ensemble Resonanz, the soloist never being the dominant player, but it is more a marriage of equals.

Overall: Very enjoyable!

My rating: 4 stars

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

Vivaldi’s Gloria RV589 with Diego Fasolis, Julia Lezhneva, and Franco Fagio – A Review

My Favorite Vivaldi Work

I recently said that I’m not a particularly huge Vivaldi fan, which got some reactions from my readers defending his work.

To correct my image as a Vivaldi-basher, I’ve already praised Rachel Podger’s recent release of the Four Seasons.

I haven’t written about my favorite Vivaldi piece of all times, the Gloria RV 589 yet. (Well to be fair, it was mentioned here in this early post about what gives goose bumps to my readers).

Gloria RV589

RV589 is commonly known as “The” Vivaldi Gloria, but in fact there are others. But in my personal opinion (which is shared by many music lovers), RV589 beats them all. It may well be the most often performed Vivaldi Choral work.

So, if I like it that much, why didn’t I write about it earlier? Well, simply said, because I haven’t yet found my personal reference version.

The version I “grew up with” is the recording with David Willcocks and the King’s College Choir isn’t a bad starting point actually, in spite of it’s age, dating from the 1960s. Most baroque music from this time is heavy, slow and very far away from today’s standard of the historically informed practice, that I barely listen to it (Karl Richter’s b-minor mass being the occasional exception). Not so Willcocks, he was in a way HIP before it became a thing.

Later I discovered Rinaldo Alessandrini. With his ensemble “Concerto Italiano” he is one of the leading interpreters of HIP Vivaldi.

He’s actually recorded this work twice. Both versions have been released and re-released so many times that it is hard to distinguish them. The easiest way is the playing time.

In his first version, he gets through the initial Gloria in Excelsis Deo in a breathtaking 1:55. The poor strings barely get to follow this breathtaking speed. As much as I appreciate baroque music with a certain drive, this is just TOO fast.

You’re much better of with his second recording featuring Sara Mingardo among his soloists. The same Gloria is still fast, but at 2:10 a bit less Mickey Mouse on speed than the first one. So far, this has been my preferred version, but I still feel more can be done.

Therefore, I was very curious when this new recording was released:

Vivaldi: Gloria – Julia Lezhneva – Franco Fagioli – Diego Fasolis (Decca 2018)

Vivaldi Gloria Julia Lezhneva Diego Fasolis I Barocchisti NIsi Dominus Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera Decca 2018

I very much liked Russian soprano’s Julia Lezhneva’s early album Alleluia, and also enjoyed her more recent release on arias from Carl Heinrich Graun. I was less of a fan of her release of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

Diego Fasolis with his Swiss ensemble I Barocchisti is usually very reliable to give you something at least very enjoyable.

The same here, this version is good. The speed is always appropriate, dynamic, but never overly rushed.

Lezhneva is nicely complemented by Franco Fagioli, an excellent countertenor.

Now, is this version my new reference? Well, it’s hard to put my finger on it, but there is something missing. As with Alessandrini, I feel that still “more” could be done. I’m not a conductor nor a musicologist, otherwise I’d probably find better words. Is it the chorus?Anyhow, in the meantime, I’ll close by saying this is very much recommended, but I’ll keep on looking.

Do you have any versions of the RV589 that I should be checking out? Please share!

My rating: 4 stars

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

 

Alina Ibragimova’s Mesmerizing Bach Concertos

Alina Ibragimova

Regular readers know that I’m a fanboy of some violin players, notably Rachel Podger (see last weeks post on her Four Seasons, and several others, e.g. this one) and Isabelle Faust (see for example here and here).

Since this year, I have to add a third name to that list, Alina Ibragimova. I’ve seen her live earlier this year playing French chamber music, and was blown away.

The real reason why I haven’t heard more of her is quite simple: Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming. Given that having access to a great streaming service is now my number one source for new music discovery, and how much new music there is to discover, it’s just hard to buy stuff blindly these days.

Plus, on the Bach violin concertos in question, I really had more than enough choice already in my library (just checked, 15 versions of BWV1041), not to mention the hundreds of versions available via streaming. And there is great stuff like above mentioned Rachel Podger, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Giuliano Carmignola, just to mention a few.

So the hurdles for buying this were high. But I’m very glad that today I clicked on “Buy” on the Hyperion website this weekend and added version number 16 to my library.

Bach: Violin Concertos – Alina Ibragimova – Jonathan Cohen – Arcangelo (Hyperion 2015)

 

Alina Ibragimova Bach Violin Concertos Acrangelo Jonathan Cohen Hyperion Records 24 96

So, this version immediately rises to the top  of my recommendations.

Before I talk about the soloist, let me first spend some words on the excellent orchestra. Given it’s young age, it was founded in 2010 by Jonathan Cohen, it is not yet as well known as for example Les Arts Florissants or other historically informed ensembles.

However, it immediately becomes audible that this really is a world class ensemble. They play with both precision and joy, and really are essential in making this album so enjoyable.

Now to Ibragimova. She keeps things very simple. Very little vibrato (HIP obliging), but even beyond that, she keeps everything very transparent and clear. To my ears, this is exactly what this music needs, it is of such an outstanding beauty (take for example the adagio of BWV 1042) that really there is nothing that needs to be added. It is just blowing you away by the sheer power of the music.

Outstanding!

I think I have to return to Hyperion’s website (link below) more often. Ibragmova’s Mozart sonatas just received fantastic reviews, and I’ll need to see how they compare to my favorite version with, again, Rachel Podger (see here).

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion Records, download) or here (Prestoclassical, CD)

P.S. I know I’ve been reviewing a lot of baroque music recently, I promise a bit more diversity going forward

 

A New Excellent Four Seasons Recording by Rachel Podger

Antonio Vivaldi (again)

In my post last week about Vivaldi’s violin concertos where I mentioned that I’m not such a particular fan of the “Red Priest”, I got a lot of reader reactions.

Many of them where trying to convince me that there’s more to Vivaldi, and that he certainly hasn’t written the same concerto 400 times as Stravinsky famously joked.

Well to set the record straight: I do like Vivaldi, kind of. Not all of it, and only in certain doses. And just to prove that I do, I’ll be doing a little mini-series about Vivaldi now.

The Four Seasons (again)

And yes, please don’t kill me if I start with the most overplayed piece of classical music ever (well, in close competition with the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony probably).

I’ve written about my favorite version of the four seasons already, it is the version with Giuliano Carmignola. This, to this day, is outstanding. So why do I really need to write about yet another recording (Discogs shows nearly 2,500 entries of this work already…)?

Well, because Rachel Podger just recorded it!

I’ve written about Rachel Podger several times already, e.g. her recent album Grandissima Gravita, her magnificent Mozart sonatas, and her Biber Rosary Sonatas, which won a 2016 Gramophone Award in her category. So be warned, like Gramophone I really tend to like her recordings and hardly ever find fault with them.

Vivaldi: Le Quattro Stagioni – Rachel Podger – Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics 2018)

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

So, sorry to repeat myself, but this is yet another outstanding recording by Mrs. Podger.

Her ensemble, Brecon Baroque, isn’t particularly large. This conveys a nice sense of intimacy. The entire recording is extremely nuanced, subtle, but always joyful.

The highlight of the album is the 3 movements of Winter. The Allegro non-molto is even a bit scary, you can feel the shivers of the cold in the opening chords (and I’m writing this on a sunny spring weekend).

And when you get to the second movement of the Winter, the Largo (which has always been a favorite of mine), it is the most “swinging” largo I’ve ever heard, you can really feel yourself taking a nice walk in the sun in a white winter landscape.

So, I’m sure you already have a Four Seasons recording in your collection. If you don’t, this is a must have. if you do, you should still strongly consider this, it is one of the best versions ever recorded, in a very particular and individual style. And as a plus, Channel Classics is known for their excellent recording technique, so this is an audiophile gem as well.

And to top it of, you get two other violin concertos by Vivaldi thrown in  (and yes, they don’t all sound the same!).

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find it here (Channelclassics), and here (NativeDSD), in both cases you get it in native DSD resolution up to multichannel.

I ended up as usual buying it here (Qobuz, PCM 24/192 only), as with my Sublime subscription it is quite significantly discounted (and no, I’m still not sponsored by Qobuz).

 

UPDATE April 23, 2018: Gramophone agrees, giving it an Editor’s Choice in it’s May 2018 issue, with this statement: “If ever a disc were self-recommending, this is it: one of today’s most consistently brilliant Baroque violinists, records one of the era’s most famed and engaging works. Enjoy!”. Please note that Gramophone, very much like me, is a bit positively biased on Podger.