My reflections on the 2019 Gramophone Awards part IV – Instrumental

This is another favorite category of mine, as typically it is mainly piano recordings.

This year, interestingly enough a solo violin recording starts the selection, Giuliani Carmignola’s recent recording of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. I’m really puzzled by this choice. Let me make it clear, I really like Carmignola (his Four Seasons are among my absolute favorites), and I also love the solo sonatas and partitas. However, Carmignola’s version sounds completely “wrong” to me. I know this is a very unspecific remark, and I’m not going to dwell on it, as this won’t be helpful for my readers. But I’ll stick with Milstein anytime.

So let’s rather go directly to the recording that is most likely going to make my Top 5 Classical albums of the year 2019, and that I sincerely hope will win this category: Yuja Wang’s fantastic Berlin recital.

Yuja Wang The Berlin Recital Rachmaninov Scriabin Ligeti Prokofiev 24 96 Deutsche Grammophon 2018

As you can see from my review, I really love this album. It has completely changed my perception of Wang as an artist. This recital combines a fantastic selection of repertoire, a playing that is both nuanced and passionate.

I’d like to thank my reader Ed for his comment on the article flagging the extra album of the 4 encores she played at this concerto. This is a must have as well. You could argue with DG why they simply didn’t include this into the main album, but in any case this 4 track album is very cheap, and a must have.

Yuya Wang The Berlin Recital Encores Deutsche Grammophon 2019 24 96

Next in line is another favorite artist of mine, Igor Levit. I haven’t yet formally reviewed his latest recording of the Beethoven sonatas, but have seen him play a selection live at this year’s Lucerne festival, and can already say his set is worth checking out. You may not like all his choices, especially on his sometimes extreme tempi, but this will be a worthy addition to the long catalogue of complete sonata recordings, more to come).

But Gramophone focused on Levit’s other release in the last 12 months, his very personal album “Life”.

I’ve reviewed it here, and if you haven’t done so yet, you should absolutely check out this five star gem.

I’ve only just started listening to another recommendation of this selection, Alexander Melnikov’s recording of Debussy’s 2nd book of Préludes.

Debussy Préludes du 2e livre La Mer Alexander Melnikov Olga Pashchenko Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 96

As you know, I’m far from being a Debussy expert, I typically just go to my complete Debussy recordings by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, but my first impression of this album is very positive. What is very interesting about this recording is the sound of the piano, an Erard, presumably from the time of Debussy. Melnikov has recorded quite a bit on period instruments, and it truly gives a different color and perspective.

I can’t comment on the two other albums that made the original 6 album shortlist, Steven Osborne’s recording o fthe late Beethoven sonatas, and Stephen Hough’s “Dream Album”, as Hyperion still refuses to stream and I refuse to buy albums blindly.

Now, as you know in the meantime Gramphone has narrowed down the shortlist from 6 to 3 albums. The finalists are Carmignola, Wang, and Levit.

I’m willing to bet that Wang will be the winner this year, and it would be well deserved!

I presume this will be the last part of this year’s mini-series on the Gramophone Awards. Maybe I’ll do one more post on the remaining categories lumped together (Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, and Opera, Recital, Solo Vocal) if I find time, but I’m much less comfortable and familar here, so let’s see. So most likely you’ll hear back from me on the Gramphone Awards once the winners are announced on October 1st.

What do you think? What would be your favorites among all these albums?

Wonderful Bach Concertos with Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust

I mentioned two blog posts ago that I’m a fanboy. I’m a fanboy of Igor Levit, of Murray Perahia, of Sabine Deviehle, but probably one of my favorite artists these days is Isabelle Faust.

I’ve reviewed her countless time on this blog, playing Bach, Mozart, Brahms (here and here), Beethoven. And there are other albums I could have mentioned as well.

The only time I was ever disappointed by a recording by Isabelle Faust was her version of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Pablo Heras-Casado.

Therefore, when I went on my “quest” last year to see all of my favorite violin players in one year, I obviously had to go for Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, and yes, maybe the queen of all, Isabelle Faust. I was very lucky I managed to squeeze all of these live performances into one year.

Isabelle Faust offered one of my preferred programs (I saw her on Lake Geneva last summer during the festival at Château de Tannay), playing exclusively Bach. The program included some of the violin concertos, but also some chamber works. The concert (only slightly spoiled by being in the main air corridor towards Geneva airport) was not surprisingly hugely enjoyable.

So what a pleasure it was when I saw that Faust just released a very similar program on Harmonia Mundi

Bach: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

Isabelle Faust had recorded the violin concertos previously around the year 2000, with Helmut Rilling for the Hänssler label (included in their complete Bach edition). Already this recording was really very nice.

But here it get’s even better. The keywords here are precision, balance, and a complete lack of showmanship. This is one of the most introvert recordings of these concertos that I’ve ever heard.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a lot of freedom with these works, at witnessed by the very beautiful recording of Alina Ibragimova with Arcangelo which I reviewed last year.

So this recording is the complete opposite. That said, I like it probably even a bit better. You really hear all the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, the delicacy of the different instruments and their balance to form something bigger together. And Faust, just as she did in Tannay, wasn’t the star of the show, but really just one more musician as part of a team.

Another similarity to my Tannay experience is also that this album not only includes all violin concertos, including the reconstructed ones, but also one of the Orchestral Suites, several individual tracks such as the Sinfonia BWV1045, and some chamber music, the trio sonatas BWV 527 and 529. In total, you get nearly 2h30 of music.

If you like Bach and historically informed performance, this album is an absolute must have.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE March 26: Listening to a recent Gramophone podcast where Gramophone speaks with Faust about this recording, I noticed I completely forgot to mention that Faust doesn’t play her typical Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius, but instead a German Steiner violin that Bach himself would have found familiar. In the interview she explained that this much better fits the ensemble sound than the Stradivarius, and that in general she really tries to be as close to what the composer intended as possible.

It is the same violin already used in the previous recording of the Bach violin sonatas (reviewed here).

In the podcast, the interviewer already said that the upcoming review of this album will be very positive. I’m not surprised.

UPDATE March 30: Classica likes it, but only gives it 4 stars, quoting the slightly remote sound quality, and the sometimes somewhat “martial” style of the orchestra. I can somewhat understand the first point, but don’t agree on the 2nd point.

Whereas Gramophone fully agrees with me and gives this album an “Editor’s Choice” in their April 2019 issue, calling it a “hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach”

Händel At Its Best with Emmanuelle Haïm, Sabine Devielhe, and Lea Desandre

Of being a fanboy

Yes, you can accuse me of being a fanboy. I’m a Belieber. Well, not exactly of the Canadian with the interesting haircuts, but there are some artists that I just pretty much like every single album of.

This list includes the brilliant Igor Levit, the amazing Isabelle Faust, but also French soprano Sabine Devielhe. I really must pay attention that I don’t just praise an album just because they release it. At least I’ve got one example to prove that even my gods are not perfect, but these are really the exception to the rule. Anyhow, I’ll stay vigilant, and please let me know in the comments if you disagree, as always! I really like hearing your opinions.

Sabine Devielhe hasn’t faulted me yet. Whether you take her Rameau album Le Grand Théâtre de l’Amour (not yet reviewed on my blog as released before I started it), her fantastic Mozart album The Weber Sisters, her more recent release Mirages, this young Soprano and her beguiling voice are always amazing.

Handel: Italian Cantatas – Emmanuelle Haïm – Le Concert d’Astrée – Sabine Devielhe – Lea Desandre (Erato 2018)

Handel Italian Cantatas Sabine Devielhe Lea Desandre Le Concert d'Astrée Emmanuelle Haïm Erato 2018 24/96

In this album, we get another favourite of mine, Emmanuelle Haïm. I’ve first encountered her on another Händel album, Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno with the great Nathalie Dessay, and have praised her fantastic Messiah.

Young French/Italian Mezzo Lea Desandre wasn’t on my radar screen yet, but after this album she certainly will be.

So what do you get on this album?

Well, you get Händel’s beauty, but in lesser known works. These cantatas, as the well written booklet tells me, were all written in Italy (hence non-surprisingly the album title). But unlike with many of the longer baroque operas, you don’t need to worry about the rather complicated and cumbersome stories. The cantatas do have stories (nicely enough shorter) as well, which you can follow thanks to the extensive booklet, but you can just be like me, and just enjoy the breathtaking beauty of this music. My personal favorite is track no. 10, Se vago rio fra sassi.

I’m a bit late to the party recommending this album, it’s already been Recording of the Month by Gramophone, has received a Choc by Classica, and 5 stars by Diapason.

So don’t hesitate and just go buy it now. You won’t regret it.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

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?

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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