Category Archives: Keyboard music (Baroque)

Keyboard music (e.g. harpsichord, cembalo, etc.) from the baroque era. May also be played on modern instruments

Rafal Blechacz Plays Bach – Beautifully!

Where’s the Jazz gone?

Yes, I know, I’ve been writing an awful lot about classical music since the new year, and Jazz has suffered a bit. This has a multitude of reasons: reader requests (for my essential 25 classical albums), concert visits (see my report on Alondra de la Parra here), or exciting new releases, such as the one I’ll be writing about in this post.

I simply haven’t seen that many exciting new Jazz releases recently. However, I have some in the making, including Sarah McKenzie’s latest album, so if you’re more into Jazz than Classical and follow my blog, don’t dispair, I’ll get back to it.

Bach: Again?

Yes, I know, I write an awful lot about Bach. If you look at the stats (you can find them in the large categories menu on the side) of my posts about different composers, he leads by far with 25 posts as of today (mid February 2017), even ahead of my beloved Johannes Brahms (with 17 posts so far).

Why is this? Well, I think I’ve written before, you can never have enough Bach. He is probably the most important composer of all times, at least to me. Maybe I should rename my blog title after all.

Rafal Blechacz

I’ve written about Blechacz several times already, first about his amazing Chopin Preludes, then mentioning him both in My Top 10 Classical Pianists, and more recently, even adding his Preludes to my 25 Essential Classical albums.

Maybe that is a bit too much praise for a 31 year old pianist who has only recorded a small handful of albums so far, one of which I didn’t even like (his 2013 recording of the Chopin Polonaises). And then again, maybe it isn’t. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live once and was really impressed.

So in a way it was a big bet putting him (together with Benjamin Grosvenor, another outstanding young talent) into my Top 10 pianists, while leaving out geniuses like Horowitz or Richter.

Well, luckily, we now have one more piece of supporting evidence with his latest release on Deutsche Grammophon.

Johann Sebastian Bach – Rafal Blechacz

Johann Sebastian Bach - Rafal Blechacz - Deutsche Grammophon 2017 24/96

 

The title of the album couldn’t be simpler: Johann Sebastian Bach. A clear statement.

You get an interesting mix of the Italian Concerto BWV971, partitas no. 1 and 3, and some smaller pieces including the ear worm piano arrangement of the Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, better known for my English speaking readers under Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.

So how does Blechacz (winner of the legendary Chopin competition) move from Chopin, the master of the romantic piano, to Bach, back to completely different music, that was composed for instruments that were very far from the modern Steinway?

Actually, suprisingly well. And if you think about it, it is not that surprising at all. Chopin was heavily influenced by Bach. Note the title “Preludes”, which is taken straight from the baroque repertoire, and is clearly inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Let’s put this new album against some tough competition:

My favorite version of the Italian Concerto is by another of my Top 10 classical pianists, Murray Perahia, on his 2003 SACD, and Blechacz really doesn’t need to hide here. What differentiates Blechacz I guess is his very individual touch, always gentle, even when he plays loudly. I wouldn’t replace Perahia by Blechacz, but I could very easily live with both versions, having their individual quality. Side note: Two other versions of this concerto I can recommend are by Claire-Marie Le Guay on her beautiful Bach album, and if you prefer to listen to this on a harpsichord, go for the brilliant Pierre Hantaï.

On the partitas, my preferred versions are again Perahia, but also Igor Levit’s beautiful recording (both on Sony). Claire-Marie Le Guay also has recorded partita no. 1 on the above mentioned album. Can Blechacz add new insights? Well, maybe not insights, but a different viewpoint. He has a beautiful playfulness, making this a really individual take on Bach. I find it very enjoyable.

And closing the album with Myra Hess’ arrangement of the Bach cantata is a beautiful round-up to a new addition to the Bach universe.

Is this album essential? Maybe not. Is this album immensely enjoyable? Absolutely yes!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters, currently offering a 20% discount for the week that I’m writing this).

 

UPDATE April 2, 2017: In its April 2017 issue, Classica agrees, calling it a “CHOC”, i.e. 5 stars, and praising it immensely.

 

Musicophile’s 25 Essential Classical Music Albums – Part I

I Love Reader Feedback!

Hearing from your readers is just fantastic. Blogging is obviously sometimes a bit lonely exercise. You write something on your own, and then it’s out there, being read in places as far away as Turkmenistan, Mozambique, or Mongolia (I’m not making this up, the stats for my blog show user access from 157 different countries, including all of the above, and places like Micronesia, Myanmar, or Brunei).

So it is really great to hear back from readers, which luckily happens regularly, and even better if I get questions, because often these turn into blog posts, like for example My Must Have Mozart Albums.

So in this particular case, in my last blog entry about the CPE Bach keyboard concertos, reader Jim S asked me if I could do a similar post to my 25 Essential Jazz albums for classical music.

Sure, here we go!

25 Essential Classical Albums

However, now starts the tricky part. How do you define essential? Are we talking about the musical value of the work, or do you want to be as representative as possible of the 500+ years of what we call classical music today? And obviously, you’ll find many of these lists already online.

I’ve toyed with several ideas and concepts, but discarded all supposedly objective approaches to something purely subjective. Therefore, this list will simply be albums I truly don’t want to live without. Call them “desert island” albums (a cliché I hate, I’d much prefer to take an entire external hard drive to said island).

With this purely subjective list, there will be obvious gaps. Nothing prior to Bach, so the entire early music gets excluded. No Grieg, no Wagner, no Mahler, no Händel, no Debussy, no Ravel, no Haydn? All this doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate these artists (and I’ve written about most of them on this blog already). They are just not as essential to my very personal taste. And if you’re listing only 25 albums you really have to do some tough choices.

Furthermore, I’ve cheated a bit, occasionally I’ve extended the concept of “album” to an entire multi-CD box by the same artist.

So, here we go. I decided to simply go alphabetically.

I’ve you’re following my blog regularly, you won’t be surprised that the entire first part of the blog post is exclusively dedicated the the “big B’s”, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. The entire rest of the alphabet will be covered in part II.

 

Bach: Brandenburg Concertos

This first entry is already controversial. The Brandenburgs are essentially music for entertainment. How can I put them in this list and for example, not put Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis? The answer is very simple, I just love them too much. I really never get tired from this music. So all musicologists out there, sorry!

Bach Brandenburg Concertos Rinaldo Alessandrini Naive 2005

I’ve already written about my favorite version here.

 

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Pierre Hantaï

Pierre Hantai Goldberg variations Mirare 2003

This one was easy. No essential classical album list could be complete without this absolute pinnacle of keyboard music.

I’m recommending here Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord, given that this is the instrument for which this was originally written. You’ll find my original review here. if you prefer a modern piano version, go with Murray Perahia, or more recently, Igor Levit (see the review of the latter here).

 

Bach: B-minor mass – Herreweghe

Bach b-minor mass Herreweghe 2011 Phi

Again, another absolute masterpiece, that has to be in every collection. My review of my favorite version with Philippe Herreweghe can be found here.

 

Bach: St: Matthew Passion – Dunedin Consort

Here I could have chosen either the smaller St. John’s passion or the larger St. Matthew’s. I went for the larger one.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

You’ll find my review of this truly essential masterpiece here.

 

Bach: Orchestral Suites

No. 5, the last of the great Johann Sebastian. And like with entry no. 1, the Brandenburgs, we’re getting into the “pop music” territory again. I would never claim that the Orchestral Suites (also known as Overtures) are of the same musical value as the b-minor mass for example.

But again, I listen to these over and over again. That’s why they feature here.

I haven’t reviewed my favorite version on this blog yet, so just a quick comment about this album. I usually really like the Freiburger Barockorchester, and this is probably my favorite album they’ve ever recorded. They just get the balance right between swing, brillance, and sheer fun.

Bach: Ouvertüren - Complete Orchestral Suites - Freiburger Barockorchester Harmonia Mundi

 

Now, moving on to the next Big B:

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 & 7

Among the Beethoven symphonies, I was very tempted to simply put Paavo Järvi’s complete cycle, that I’ve written about here. However, they actually haven’t been released as a single album yet, and anyhow, I just needed to feature this outstanding album below, as I hadn’t written about it yet:

Carlos Kleiber Beethoven Symphonies 5 & 7 Wiener Philharmoniker Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

Carlos Kleiber, son of famous Erich Kleiber, is one of those conductor legends. Partially this is due to the fact that he has recorded relatively little, so a rarety factor comes into play here. But then again, this album above features in pretty much every “Best Of Classical” list I’ve consulted while doing the research for this post. And honestly, it very much deserves that place. There is really something special about it.

On top of everything else, you’re not only getting the famous “da da da daaaa” 5th, but my personal favorite of Beethoven’s symphonies, No 7.

A true must have.

Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas – Ronald Brautigam

I’ve already mentioned Brautigam and his complete Beethoven cycle in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists.

7318599920009_600

I know not everybody appreciates the sound of the fortepiano. And if you don’t you’ll find plenty of alternatives in the catalogue on modern Steinways. But I really suggest you check this out. Not only you get outstanding playing, the different sound of the fortepiano opens up an entirely different world.

 

Beethoven: Complete Violin Sonatas – Isabelle Faust

Beethoven: Complete Sonatas for piano & violon - Isabelle Faust - Alexander Melnikov - Harmonia Mundi 2013 24/44

Oh no you’re going to say – again Isabelle Faust? Yes I know, I’m a BIG fan. I’m not going to give links here to all the positive reviews I’ve written about her, there are simply too many (just enter “Faust” in the search box on the right, and you’ll see the long list).

But what can I do? She’s done one of the best, if not THE best cycle of Beethoven’s violin sonatas.

What you could argue about, if I choose chamber music from Beethoven, why the violin sonatas and not the string quartets? Well to be frank, I’m still in the process of fully absorbing all string quartets and have yet to make up my mind which version to prefer.

So, only 3 entries for Beethoven, but given that I’ve “cheated” with two complete boxes, I figured we can move on to the composer whose name features in the sub-title of my blog.

 

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Leon Fleisher – George Szell

Brahms first piano concerto was my first big love in music. I started out with a decent, but not outstanding version, with Sir Georg Solti, and Andras Schiff on piano, and by now have collected more than 20 versions.

Among the more recent recordings, I really like the version by Riccardo Chailly with Nelson Freire, but when we’re getting a bit back in time, I guess there is simply no beating of George Szell.

The only problem I’m having is, which version? George Szell has recorded piano concerto no. 1 with several pianists, including Rudolf Serkin, Leon Fleisher, and Clifford Curzon, among others.

I guess, overall the version with Leon Fleisher wins by a very small margin, but tomorrow I may well recommend Curzon instead. But I guess I have to decide, so Fleisher it is:

Leon Fleisher: Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 and Beethoven Piano concerto No. 2 Cleveland Orchestra George Szell

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 2 – Richter – Leinsdorf

Brahms Piano concerto no. 2 Beethoven Sonata No. 23 Sviatoslav Richter, Erich Leinsdorf - Chicago Symphony RCA

Again, for piano concerto no. 2 I could have recommended a lot of albums. I’ve previously written about Emil Gilels,  and could have recommended Gilels with Reiner, or again Chailly/Frere.

But I guess there is something truly special about this particular recording with the great Sviatoslav Richter, that I had the pleasure of hearing live once in a solo recital.

A must have.

Brahms: Symphony No. 1 – Wilhelm Furtwängler

Here it gets complicated. In one of my very first blog posts I’ve written about my quest to find a modern version to replace my love for Wilhelm Furtwängler in Brahms first symphony. I’ve also written about why this symphony is so important to me, so I simply couldn’t keep it of the list.

Therefore, be warned, the recording I’m recommending here is a historic performance, that may not please everyones ears from a technical perspective (musically it is hard to beat though).

Furtwängler has recorded this symphony several times, and my favorite version is either with the Berlin Philharmonic, or with the NDR Sinfonieorchester Hamburg.

Let’s pick the BPO version here. Unfortunately it is not that easy to find. It can be found on the Furtwängler Anniversary Box, which is worth having:

Wilhelm Furtwängler Anniversary Tribute Deutsche Grammophon

 

Brahms: Symphony No. 4 – John Eliot Gardiner

Brahms 4 is my other favorite Brahms symphony. I really love the variations in the 4th movement!

I could have given a lot of recommendations here, Chailly, Szell again, or as above, Carlos Kleiber.

But let me stick to this version, the 2010 recording by John Eliot Gardiner with his Orcheste Revolutionnaire et Romantique. I know the concept of historically informed performance is controversial, especially for late 19th century works.

Anyhow, I really like what I hear, especially the transparency.

If you want more traditional Vienna Philharmonic sound, just get the Carlos Kleiber instead!

Brahms Symphony No. 4 John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2010

 

Brahms: Violin Concerto – Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

Yes, sorry, Faust pops up twice in this post, here we go again for Brahms Violin Concerto, as reviewed here. If you want an alternative, just get Jascha Heifetz with Fritz Reiner, or Janine Jansen (see here)

 

To be continued next week…..

All of the albums above that weren’t reviewed previously are obviously full 5 star ratings!

And while I’m preparing part II, I’d love to hear your feedback on the selection above? Am I nuts? What do you think? What are your favorites?

 

You can find the albums here:

 

My Top 5 Classical Albums for 2016

My Top 5 Classical Albums for 2016

I know, people love lists. Especially men apparently. Remember Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity? Subjectively speaking, half of the book are top 5 lists. Somebody even bothered to compile them.

Why do we love lists? Well, they are easily digestable, and give you the feeling that you really are getting the best of the best, right?

I must admit, I also pay quite a bit of attention to such lists, be it the Gramophone Awards, the Chocs de l’Année by Classica, or whoever else bothers to put together such best-of’s. Even on my own blog, my various best-of lists (from Mozart, to Christmas Jazz, to Jazz Covers) tend to be the ones with the most clicks.

So here we go again. Helpful even if you’re still looking for Christmas gifts (though in the age of downloads and streaming, giving away music becomes more tricky, an iTunes Gift Card is probably not very sexy under the tree).

They are ordered alphabetically, by composer. Please don’t ask me to rank them within.

So you DO ask me? Really?

Well, here you go. Note that this priority list may change next week if I’m in a different mood.

  1. Mozart: The Weber Sisters
  2. Schubert: String Quintet
  3. Bach: French Suites
  4. Mozart: Mass in C-minor
  5. Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 5, 8, and 9

Again, as all my reviews, this list is very subjective, and not only based on the performance itself, but how much fun I have listening to you.

 

Bach: French Suites – Murray Perahia

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

Perahia this year not only made it into my list of top 10 pianists (yes, yet another list), he is the only baroque album of 2016 onto this particular list.

A fantastic album (see my full review here), getting the well deserved Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

 

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor – Masaaki Suzuki 

Mozart appears twice in my top 5 list this year, this is not on purpose, but a very happy circumstance. The playing of Mozart has evolved so much since the days of big orchestral Karajan, historically informed practice really has given us so many new insights into Mozart. Here we have two excellent examples.

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

Suzuki’s excellent new recording of the amazing C-minor Mass really is good enough to justify it’s place on this list. You’ll find my review here. Suzuki’s often very clean style doesn’t always convince me, but here we really have a winner.

 

Mozart: The Weber Sisters – Sabine Devielhe

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

Technically, this is an album that was released in November 2015 and I reviewed it last December. But I reviewed it after my Top 5 classical albums of 2015, so I it deserves to be highlighted here as well.

This is Mozart singing as beautiful as it gets. It’s a bit of a “concept album”, based on Mozart’s wife Constanze Weber, and her sisters. But honestly, you don’t need the booklet here to enjoy a voice that touches your heart directly.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène & Gautier Capuçon

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

As reviewed here, this is one of the best versions ever of the absolute masterpiece that is Schubert String Quintet. It was one of the Gramophone Award nominees in it’s category, I have no idea why it didn’t win.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 5, 8 and 9 – Andris Nelsons

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9 - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra

I didn’t have time yet to write a formal review about this album.

As mentioned previously, I don’t often venture into 20th century music.

This album however, is really worth it. Shostakovich 5 and 9 are probably among the most approachable symphonies from the Russian genius, and these are so well played here by Nelsons in extremely engaging live recordings with the BSO.

My rating: 5 stars

So now it’s your turn

Do you agree, disagree? Anything I’ve missed? Anything that shouldn’t be on there? Please tell me in the comments!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Perahia:  here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters).

Mozart Great Mass: here (eclassical)

Mozart: the Weber Sisters: here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

Schubert: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Shostakovich: here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

 

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.

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part V): All The Rest

And All The Rest

After 4 parts on my favorite categories of the 2016 Gramophone Award nominations, I discovered that I simply don’t have enough to say about most albums in the other categories, so I decided to lump all remaining categories (Baroque Instrumental, Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, Opera, Orchestral, Recital, Solo Vocal) into one big “super-post” and only write about the albums I really care about in this remaining sections.

So, here we go:

Baroque Instrumental

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works (BIS 2016)

I must admit, I bought this album initially because I finally wanted to have a well recorded modern version of the Toccata d-minor BWV565, probably Bach’s best known work even for lay people.

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works BIS 2016 24/96

Well, that and the fact that I truly admire Masaaki’s efforts with the Bach Collegium Japan, and have pretty much his entire Cantata cycle. So I was curious to hear him as a soloist.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. BIS can usually be trusted for recording quality, and this recording delivers (although has quite a bit of reverb from the Marinikerk in Groninen, so if you don’t like this, look elsewhere).

The good thing of this album is as well that once you go beyond the Toccata earworm, there is lots of beautiful music to discover. I don’t listen to organ very regularly, so this album pushes me in the right direction.

And Masaaki surely knows how to play. This album has received some controversial reviews, some like Diapason and obviously Gramophone love it, some critisize Suzuki takes too many liberties. Well, I’m certainly in the first camp.

My rating: 4 stars

 

WF Bach Keyboard Concertos – Maude Gratton (Mirare 2015)

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Concertos pour Clavecin et Cordes / Cembalo Concerts Maude Gratton Il Convito

I’ve reviewed this album previously and unfortunately, it still isn’t my cup of tea.

 

Biber: Rosary Sonatas – Rachel Podger (Channel Classics 2016)

Ah, Rachel Podger. I’m a big fan, and like pretty much everything she recorded, see also here.

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Sometimes, even in the music world, there seem to be trends.

You barely heard about Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (to quote his full name) for years, and all over sudden, you get 3 recordings of the Rosary Sonatas in a row.

Not sure about the exact order, but we got Ariadne Daskalakis on BIS, Hélène Schmitt on Aeolus, and Rachel Podger in the space of about 12 months.

What’s even more difficult: all of the above are very good.

Nevertheless Podger has an edge over the two others in my ear due to the sheer beauty of the playing. Now, you could argue, is beauty the right approach for these works.

Well I’m not religious, but if Wikipedia is correct, the Mystery of the Rosaries are meditations on important moments in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. I personally would want these to be beautiful. The outstanding recording quality of Channel Classics in DSD only makes it more breathtaking. 

My rating: 5 stars

In any case, check out the two others as well before buying.

My prediction

So who will win in the category? Both Suzuki and Podger have made it into the final three, I’d expect a tight race here. I personally give the edge to Podger.

Opera

I recently bought Netrebko’s beautiful recording of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and enjoyed it a lot, so I really need to check out the recording of Pique Dame that Gramophone recommends here by Mariss Jansons, but I haven’t done so yet, so will refrain from any comment at this stage.

The only album in the opera category I’ve heard (and own) is:

Verdi: Aidi – Antonio Pappano – Anja Harteros – Jonas Kaufmann (Warner 2015)

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

Well, no change to my previous five star rating (see the review here), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this album will also win. Like the Tchaikovsky mentioned above, it made it into the final three candidates.

Orchestral

I’m a bit surprised myself that I wasn’t able to write a dedicated blog post about the Orchestral category, but there are simply too many albums nominated from composers that I dont’ care enough about, often 20th century, from Casella, Dutilleux, Elgar, to Vaughan Williams.

So just a quick note about two albums in this section:

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Claudio Abbado – Orchestra Mozart

Schubert Symphony No. 9 Abbado Orchestra Mozart Deutsche Grammophon 2015

Going to be brief here, I love a lot of the stuff that Abbado did with his Orchestra Mozart, this isn’t my favorite. I’d much rather go with Dohnanyi as reviewed here.

And then there is Andris Nelson’s BSO recording of Shostakovich symphony no. 10. I don’t have that one yet, but really like his even more recent release of symphonies no. 5 and 9.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Given that I haven’t heard 90% of the albums in this category, predicting the winner is obviously preposterous. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Nelsons wins here.

Recital

I’ve only spent a decent amout of time with one album in this section, the excellent Weber Sisters.

A side note on the Ricercar Cavalli album, I skipped through it, but found the Christina Pluhar album released pretty much at the same time more exciting. I may need to revisit that though.

And I gave Jonas Kaufmann’s Nessun Dorma as a present to my mother-in-law, she’s a big Kaufmann fan, and I must admit, the album is really worth checking out.

Mozart and the Weber Sisters – Sabine Devieilhe – Raphael Pichon – Ensemble Pygmalion

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

I’ve already reviewed this album, with 5 stars.

And I keep going back to it over and over again.

This is again one of the rare birds of albums where Classica (Choc de l’année), Diapason (5 stars), Gramophone (Editor’s choice, Gramphone Award nominee), and Telerama (4F) all agree.

She is nominated among the final 3 contenders in this category, I really hope she wins!

 

So in summary: Podger’s Biber, Pappano’s Aida, and Devielhe’s Mozart are the must have albums for me here, with Suzuki’s organ works also highly recommended.

 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Suzuki Organ Works

WF Bach Cembalo Concertos

Biber Rosary Sonatas Podger

Verdi Aida Pappano

Schubert 9 Abbado

Nelsons BSO Shostakovich 10

The Weber Sisters

 

 

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part III): Instrumental

You can find Part I (concerto) and part II (Baroque Vocal) of this blog post here and here

Instrumental

Again, one of my absolute favorite categories, and some beautiful gems this year.

Let’s get right into it:

Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski: Variations – Igor Levit (Sony 2015)

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

I’ve already reviewed this fantastic album, by one of the pianists I admire most these days. What else is there to say but “wow”, or 5 stars?

 

Brahms: The Complete Solo Piano Music vol. 3 – Jonathan Plowright (BIS 2016)

Brahms: The Complete Solo Piano Music, vol. 3 - Jonathan Plowright (BIS 2016)

I cannot really comment on this album very much, as BIS has a restriction on streaming albums for the first 6 months I believe, so I wasn’t able to hear more than 30 secs of each track, which really isn’t enough to review.

I must admit, that past releases from Plowright’s Brahms recordings (e.g. Sonata No. 3) were ok, but not so great that I was particularly motivated in purchasing this album blindly.

Plus, I’m not sure if Op. 21 no.2 and the Waltzes are essential Brahms (I love op. 76 and 118 though). Will check back when it frees up for streaming.

 

Grieg: Lyric Pieces – Stephen Hough

Grieg Lyric Pieces Stephen Hough Hyperion 2016

Hyperion is another one of the labels that refuses streaming, but unlike BIS not only for the first 6 months, but permanently. On the one hand, I get the point that artists make peanuts on streaming, so it is not something some labels want to endorse.

I must admit that even though I have a subscription to a lossless streaming services that let’s me listen to any album in full CD quality, when there’s something I really like I usually purchase the album anyhow. And in the few years I had access  to streaming, I got so used to being able to listen to an album fully before buying, that Hyperion is actually losing money with their policy on me. But I guess I’m rather the exception.

Long story short: again, only 30 secs samples available to me. Not enough to judge. First impression is quite positive though. I really like Grieg’s little gems so I may end up buying this anyhow.

 

Ravel: Complete Works For Solo Piano – Bertrand Chamayou

Ravel: Complete Works For Solo Piano - Bertrand Chamayou Erato 2016

This album was my surprise of the year.

As mentioned previously, the so-called French impressionists (Ravel and Debussy) are usually only partially my cup of tea. So I wasn’t particularly excited when this came out, by a young French pianist I’d never heard about.

But then this album received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice AND a Choc from Classica. This really is rarer than you’d think, as my two favorite classical magazines rarely agree (Classica was only lukewarm on the Brahms Plowright above, for example).

So I went and checked it out, and Erato nicely enough IS available for streaming.

And what can I say: I don’t see how you could play these works any more beautifully than what Chamayou does here. Just magic. Go and loose yourself in the magic of the opening Jeux d’eau, take the amazing Gaspard de la Nuit, or even simple stuff like the Haydn inspired Menuet, all is just perfect. Nothing is ever Kitsch or Too Much, this is painted with a very light brush, his style doesn’t remind me of the Impressionism of a Monet, but more of the Pointilism of a Seurat, if you get the analogy.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonatas for Solo Violon – Alina Ibragimowa (Hyperion 2016)

Ysaye: Sonatas for solo violin - Alina Ibragimova Hyperion 2016

Let’s make this one quick: I really like Ibragimova, don’t know a lot about Ysaÿe (beyond that he was a Belgian superstar). Thanks to Hyperion’s no streaming policy, this is not likely to change any time soon. I’ve read a lot of positive reviews about this elsewhere, so don’t let my ignorance scare you off.

 

Scarlatti (D): 18 Sonatas – Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS 2016)

Scarlatti: 18 Sonatas - Yevgeny Sudbin BIS 2016

And here we go again, BIS’ no streaming policy will stop me for another couple of months or so to listen to this album.

What I can say is that I’m a big fan of Sudbin, but my expertise on Scarlatti is rather light anyhow, so I wouldn’t take my judgment very seriously even if I had listened to the album.

Be warned, this album also received some “meh” reviews, it’s apparently not everybody’s cup of tea.

 

Conclusion?

You may complain, only two albums I properly bothered to comment about? Well, as a policy I rather shut up where I don’t know what I’m talking about or am unable to properly review.

But in any case, both the Levit and the Chamayou are such exceptional albums, that we’re already very well served here.

So, who will win? 2 days ago Gramophone announced the 3 finalists, namely Levit, Chamayou, and Sudbin.

My prediction: Chamayou will win the category, and I hope Levit will win the “Artist of the Year”, a public poll (I already voted for Mr. Levit, but votes are closed since end of July now).

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback!

 

You can find the albums here:

Levit: http://www.qobuz.com/fr-fr/album/bach-beethoven-rzewski-igor-levit/0886444998161

Brahms Plowright: http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/brahms-the-complete-solo-piano-music-iii.html

Grieg Hough: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68070

Ravel Chamayou: http://www.qobuz.com/fr-fr/album/ravel-complete-works-for-solo-piano-bertrand-chamayou/0825646026777

Ysaÿe Ibragimova: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA67993

Scarlatti Sudbin: http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/scarlatti-18-sonatas.html

 

 

 

 

 

Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier – beautifully played by Céline Frisch

Das wohltemperierte Klavier

Yes, I know, Bach once more.

But to my defense, this is the first time I’ve written about this particular work, the famous Well-Tempered Clavier BWV 846-893.

Prelude no. 1 in C-major is probably known even to many  non-classical listeners, as it forms the basis of Gounod’s Ave Maria, and it is accessible enough for most piano students to attack it at some point during their classes (including me).

Obviously, there is much more to this cycle of works that takes you through every single key step by step. It consists of two “books” or parts of preludes and fugues covering all keys of our Western scale

Side note: In case you didn’t know, the term “well-temperament” refers to the tuning of the keyboard that was at that time recently invented. Before the well-tempered tuning, any given tuning used at the time worked well for some keys but didn’t really work for others. To simplify, the well-tempered scale by Andreas Werkmeister was the first where you could easily switch between keys without any of the keys sounding out of tune.

I already had a couple of nice recordings of this work, from old-fashioned but great Sviatoslav Richter to Andras Schiff (obviously), to both recordings of Angela Hewitt.

However, I never had a recording on harpsichord that really convinced me. Earlier I used to like Keith Jarrett’s recording on ECM. However, I’ve outgrown this recoding a bit. Both Egarr and Levin are very good, but still I wasn’t 100% satisfied.

Céline Frisch’s Well Tempered Clavier Book 1 

Céline Frisch The Well Tempered Clavier Book I Alpha 2015

I had first heard about Céline Frisch regarding her Goldberg Variation recording. But I never checked her out I must admit. I was too happy with Hantaï, and more recently Levit.

However, the February 2016 issue of Classica pointed me towards her Well-Tempered Clavier recording, so I went to Qobuz and gave it a listen. They awarded this album a “Choc“, their way of saying 5 stars, and called this “une interprétation magistrale“, probably best translated with “authoritative recording”. (It also received the highest rating from Diapason, the Diapason d’or).

And I was impressed, this version is so spot-on, so precise, but never technical, never dull. Bach on a harpsichord can easily get boring or annoying, when it is played too much like robot, or lacking any other kind of differentiation, as obviously on a harpsichord you cannot modulate your touch like you can do on a modern piano.

None of this here, you will be drawn into the music from the first second, and will want to listen to the entire thing. Not an easy achievement, given that this was composed to use Bach’s own words (translation thanks to Wikipedia) “for the profit and use of musical youth desirous of learning, and especially for the pastime of those already skilled in this study”, i.e. essentially a piece to study your skills, not really for public performance and for somebody else to listen to it.

Frisch plays a copy of a Silbermann harpsichord. This instrument at the beginning takes some getting used to, it being a bit bright and slim. However, you get into it really quickly, also thanks to Alpha’s usual good recording technique, and after a while you really appreciate the transparency that let’s you hear through even more complicated fugues.

My rating: 5 stars

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

P.S. And you can be sure her Goldberg’s are next on my playlist.