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)

Piotr Anderszewski at Lucerne Festival with Bach and Beethoven – A Review

Piotr Anderszewski

My first “contact”, obviously virtual, with the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski was  when I reviewed the 2015 Gramophone Award nominees back in the early days of my blog. 

At the time, I wasn’t blown away by his recording of the English Suites, compared to my other favourites in this area, particularly Perahia and Pierre Hantaï.

So I was even more surprised when he won the Gramophone Award in this category over my personal favourites Levit and Grosvenor. 

In a nutshell, Piotr and I didn’t get off to a good start. 

Things improved more recently, when he was nominated again in 2017, for his Schumann album, which I really liked. I even meant to formally review it, which never happened for lack of time, but this album to this day is one I recommend without hesitation. 

But when I saw that he was playing the closing concert of the fall Lucerne Festival, which is always dedicated to the piano, and I happened to be in the area, I had to check it out.

Piotr Anderszewski at the 2018 Piano Lucerne Festival, KKL Lucerne, November 25, 2018

Piotr Anderszwewski at the KKL Lucerne, Lucerne Festival, November 25, 2018

If I needed any more convincing, the program helped. 

Anderszewski started off with parts of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier, especially the second book of the Well Tempered Clavier that I must admit I listen to much less than the first volume. 

This was really an amazing experience. Amazing intensity, while at the same time never too extrovert, a dense flow of sound, that really took you in as a listened. 

During the break, we got to admire the beautiful Christmas tree that Lucerne built up in front of the KKL’s main entry, together with a illuminated ice skating ring for kids that looked like taken out of a fairy tale (ok, I actually don’t know any fairy tales that feature ice skating rings, but you get the picture). Together with a glass of bubbly the break passed quickly.

Moving on to the “main  act”, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. I’ve previously written about them how they really aren’t easily accessible. It basically took me years to really appreciate them. By now, I have several favourites, including Andreas Staier, and obviously Igor Levit.

This was now the first time I heard this Opus Magnum live. I had pretty high  expectations after Andrew Clements in the Guardian called a similar performance by Anderszewski earlier this yearperhaps the most completely convincing reading of the Diabelli I’ve ever heard in the concert hall“.

Now, it was clearly also the most convincing reading for me, given that I heard it live for the first time, but bad pun aside, it was a fascinating reading.

What struck me most was the speed, or actually lack of it, that Anderszewski took. In many parts he really stopped time, or so it seemed. This may not be a performance that works on a recording, but in the beautiful acoustics of the large KKL hall, it worked wonders, and it truly became a transcendental experience in some moments. 

Overall, an amazing concert experience.

P.S. I didn’t find many reviews of this concert, but both the great Swiss critic Peter Hagmann, as well as Leonard Wüst on behalf of the Bochumer Zeitung, both reported very positively about their experience (both links in German only).

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)

Igor Levit – Life – A Beautiful Treasure

Does Gramophone read my blog?

I presume not, but it’s a nice coincidence that just a short time after I write a dedicated blog post about the piano transcriptions of Bach’s Chaconne, Gramophone releases a complete review of all historic recordings of Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne. That’s great news for me as well, as there a lot of versions I haven’t checked out yet.

One very new one is also not yet mentioned in this review article, which brings us to this album.

Igor Levit – Life (Sony Classical 2016)

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If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a huge Levit fan. Not only I’ve praised his Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski album, but to me he is clearly one of my favorite pianists of all times.

He has a very particular style. There is a certain perfectionism (his outstanding technique clearly helps), but it is never going towards the mechanical perfection of some virtuosos, the perfectionism, particularly about timing, is always serving the music.

Levit doesn’t tend to be a virtuoso in general, he could easily be with his mastering of the piano, but he really never shows off. In many way, it is a very introvert way of playing which makes it even more interesting.

This album in many ways shows an even more intimate side of Levit. It is a very personal selection of music, from Busoni, via Schumann, to Rzewski and even Bill Evans. The common thread of the album can be found in the title, “Life”, as this album was strongly influenced by the death of a close friend of Levit.

The album starts with two transcriptions by Busoni of Bach originals. The Chaconne is a very good example of the intimate style I described above, in many ways it is the complete opposite of the somewhat overwhelming fireworks in fascinating recording of the same work by the young Benjamin Grosvenor.

We continue with a rarely played variations work by Schumann, which makes me really hope that Levit will record more of his work. I’d love to hear his take on the Davidsbündlertänze or the Kreisleriana.

Another highlight of this album are the two Wagner transcriptions, from Parsifal and Tristan. I must admit not being a great fan of Wagner in general (this is actually the first time this composer even appears on this blog), but he clearly has written some great harmonies.

The album wraps up with one of my favorite compositions of Bill Evans, the simple Peace Piece from the 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. 

There really couldn’t be a better ending to this very particular, personal album than this solemn, simple, but breathtakingly beautiful interpretation.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

 

A Review of a VERY BIG Rach2 by Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin – Stunning

Daniil Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a big fan of both artists (e.g. see here for my review their previous Rachmaninov album, or here for a report my recent experience of Nézet-Séguin live, or just use the search function).

Trifonov is without doubt one of the best pianists of our age, and I start to regret not having included him in my list of my Top 10 classical pianists, maybe that blog post needs an update at some point. And Nézet-Séguin is on his path to be one of the truly great conductors of the 21st century.

So when I saw they just released the legendary Rach 2 together, I bought the album immediately.

Destination Rachmaninov: Departure. Piano concertos No. 2 & 4 – Daniil Trifonov – Yannick Nézet-Séguin – The Philadelphia Orchestra

 

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

There is no lack of great recordings of Rach2. Andsnes, Zimerman, Buniatishvili (although this recording is bit controversial), not to mention the greats like Richter, or even the composer himself.

How to play this piece? Do you try to keep it more factual, or do you go with the full romantic power of the piece?

Some lessons can be taken from the recording of Rachmaninov with Leopold Stokowski, featuring the very same Philadelphia Orchestra than the current recording. And one thing is clear, already at the time (1924), they went BIG. A lot of power, a lot of rubato, a lot of everything. And guess what, that works! (well the composer should know, you’d presume)

Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin take a very big approach here. You can really float in the big sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and soloist and conductor clearly connect. Trifonov clearly is a virtuoso of the highest caliber, so the technical challenges of this massive work just go unnoticed.

Overall, there is a lot of rubato, and the tempo is relatively slow. In some of the slower passages, one even gets reminder of a Bruckner symphony.

Some would argue this is too much. I haven’t seen many reviews yet, but I predict this recording will be a love it or hate it affair.

To make it clear: I love it!

You also get concerto no. 4, but to this day, I’m like quite a large majority of music lovers, I love nos. 2 and 3, and just don’t get 4. So no comment from my side.

What you do get on top is much more interesting, at least to me. Rachmaninov did his transcription of the Violin Partita BWV 1006, a true gem, that I should probably add to my blog post on transcriptions of the Chaconne. Very much worth discovering.

I’m kind of curious about the album title, Departure, and am really wondering where this train takes us next. Let’s hope to an equally spectacular Rach 3!

My rating: 5 stars.

I’m curious to see if my prediction holds true, and there will be both raving and bad reviews of this. I’ll report back when I see them. In the meantime, try before you buy!

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

 

UPDATE Oct 30: Well, my prediction of this being a very controversial album already holds true. Check out the comments of my readers below, and you’ll find both love and hate.

In terms of professional reviews, we generally are very positive so far, with four stars from Richard Fairman in the FT, five stars by Andrew Clements in the Guardian, another five stars by Normal Lebrecht. I’m still curious what Gramophone and Classica will think of this.

In any case, try before you buy!