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

Sophie Pacini – In Between – Truly Passionate Romantic Piano

Schumann and Mendelssohn

I must admit, the core of my listening when I was younger was the Romantic period.

Brahms really was my first love, but also Bruckner, Schumann, and later increasingly Mendelssohn.

I have written previously about Mendelssohn’s solo piano works, e.g. the beautiful recordings of the Lieder ohne Worte (Song without Words) by Ronald Brautigam here and Xavier Perianes here.

But I’ve been a bit too silent about Schumann’s beautiful piano works. I was just recently reminded of Schumann’s tragic life when I saw a re-run of the 2008 German TV production Beloved Clara (Geliebte Clara) that is set in the last years of Schumann’s life when Brahms suddenly shows up, and witnesses Schumann’s increasing mental degradation. The movie isn’t the best ever, but the true story is really fascinating. And actress Martina Gedeck as Clara is good as ever.

So when I quite recently discovered a new release of a young Italian pianist, that of all possible mentors was endorsed and encouraged by none other than the magnificent Martha Argerich, I was curious.

Sophie Pacini – In Between (Warner Classics 2018)

Sophie Pacini is 26 years old, but has already had a quite impressive career, and winning several prices. Somehow she wasn’t yet on my radar screen yet. What a miss. She’s a truly passionate pianist.

Sophie Pacini In Between Schumann & Mendelssohn Warner Classics 2018 24/96 review

This entire album is split between Schumann and Mendelssohn. We really get the full level of energy throughout, I’m really not suprised that Matha endorses her, in many way she reminds me of her.

My favorite piece is already the starting piece. Here we’re getting the Liszt translation of the beautiful love song Widmung. 

This piece really is already fully putting you into the mood, virtuosity, energy, but also a lot of nuance.

When in the second half we get to Mendelssohn, we see that Pacini also is very powerful in the less virtuoso passages, she plays e.g. the beautiful Lieder ohne Worte with a lot of intimacy.

The only thing you could criticize on this album, if you really wanted to, is the occasional moment of “power over precision”, and a lot of use of rubato. But this really is nitpicking.

 

Sophie Pacini is a promising artist to watch (well, don’t believe me, but Martha apparently after initially hearing her play called her Veramente Bravisssima), and I can recommend this album very highly.

My rating: 4 stars

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

 

Haydn’s Piano Sonatas by Paul Lewis – Delightful

Papa Haydn

I’ve written several times before about Haydn, mainly about his symphonies, e.g. here (Ottavio Dantone) and here (Giovanni Antonini).

Overall, I’m not such a big fan of this composer. He had a very important role in music history, but I’d much rather listen to Mozart than to Haydn most of the time.

However, exceptions confirm the rule. For example, this excellent album by Paul Lewis:

Haydn: Piano Sonatas 32, 40, 49, 50 – Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Haydn Piano Sonatas Nr. 32 40 49 50 Paul Lewis Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 96

Paul Lewis is one of the most famous pupils of the legendary Alfred Brendel. He’s already recorded quite a bit, and has often focused on a very similar repertoire to his master, e.g. Schubert and Beethoven (his complete Beethoven cycle is very nice).

You can hear a lot of his Schubert and Beethoven in this recording. The playing is always thoughtful, often energetic, but never too much, very nuanced, and overall extremely enjoyable. It is very clear that Lewis has learned a lot from Brendel, I’d use very similar adjectives for him.

What suprises me is that I keep going back to this album on a very regular basis, and in a way this is probably the one Haydn album I’ve listened to the most in my entire life of classical music listening.

Gramophone agrees and gives this an Editor’s Choice in their May 2018 issue (although they tend to be quite friendly to UK artists in general).

Overall, very much worth having.

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

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

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)

Lisa Batiashvili playing Brahms at Tonhalle Zurich – Fantastic

5 fantastic female violin players

So, this was supposed to be just a concert report about last night at Tonhalle Maag in Zurich. But please allow me a small parenthesis.

These days we’re extremely lucky, as we have many outstanding classical music artists that are currently active. I’ve already written about my Top 10 Favourite Classical Pianists some time ago, but I’ve never done the same for the violin.

Right now, there are about 5 female violinists that I truly admire, all of which are world-class. I had seen Alina Ibragimova earlier this year already, and had the pleasure of seeing Lisa Batiashvili for the first time last night.

But then, innocently enough, there was a little sign post in front of the Tonhalle Maag building, announcing Julia Fischer playing Mendelssohn’s violin concert at the very same Tonhalle in about a month time. The ticket office was open, so I obviously got tickets for that one as well. I don’t know why I haven’t written about Julia Fischer on this blog yet, but I’ll start a post on my top 10  favorite violinist soon, she’ll be in there.

So I was joking to the guy at the ticket office, if now I could only see Isabelle Faust and Janine Jansen live this year as well, I’d finally have covered all my favorite players. And then I realised, that was exactly what I had to do. So while waiting for the gates of the Tonhalle to open, I bought tickets for Isabelle Faust with the Akademie für Alte Musik playing Bach concertos, and I now just need to pick one of Jansen’s great concerts this year (Sibelius, Brahms, Berg, some chamber music in Verbier, there’s a lot of choice).

Let me close the long parenthesis here, but one of my new year resolutions was to see more live concerts. I started well, but slowed down in recent month. (By the way, I completely missed writing about seeing Aracadi Volodos live some months ago, my bad)

But now it looks like it is going to be a really good year now!

Lisa Batiatishvili, Antonio Pappano, Chamber Orchestra of Europe – Ligeti & Brahms – May 23, 2018, Tonhalle Maag, Zurich

So, now let’s get to the concert itself.

The Chamber Orchestra is a great ensemble, especially under an outstanding conductor.

Antonio Pappano really is one of those great conductors. I’ve written about him already twice on this blog, and in both cases we’re talking about 5 star albums. First his great Aida, and then even more relevant for last night’s performance, the Brahms violin concerto with Janine Jansen.

So while the orchestra and the soloist is different, I already had some idea how Pappano would potentially approach the orchestral part of this great violin concerto. Obviously, here we had the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and not his own Accademia di Santa Cecilia, but it was clear that Pappano and the orchestra knew each other well, as they are currently touring all over Europe with this program.

But first things first, the program started with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. I must admit I had no idea what to expect, as I mentioned previously on this blog, I’m really not very knowledgable with classical music after 1920. I barely ever venture beyond the safe bets of Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

I was very positively surprised. The short work really is a firework of musical ideas and energy. I definitely need to check out more of Ligeti, one more (rather late) new year resolution then.

But now to the Masterpiece of the evening, the Brahms violin concerto.

I really had high hopes for this. As mentioned above, Pappano had already shown with Jansen that he really knows this work, and Batiashvili earlier recording of the Sibelius violin concerto with Oramo is one of my favourite versions on disc.

I was a little hesitant though as I’m not such a big fan of the only time Batiashvili recorded this concerto before, with Christian Thielemann in Dresden. I mean, it’s not bad, but something always felt slightly off. By now I feel this slightly off thing actually was Thielemann, not Batishvili (I never was a fan of Thielemann in the first place).

Luckily, no Thielemann here, just Pappano. What did we get?

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To make it short: an outstanding experience. Pappano and the COE put in an amazing energy and pleasure, and Batiatishvili really played with all her heart. This was BIG Brahms, and it really was the full Cinemascope experience of this masterpiece.

The overall concert was so outstanding, that even the iPhone that was ringing TWICE! in the handbag of the elderly lady just in front of me didn’t spoil the experience (she clearly probably just received this phone and had no idea how to even switch off the sound).

The Tonhalle audience agreed, this was one of the most overwhelming applauses I’ve seen from in Zurich. We got treated to a nice encore.

I was even thinking, maybe I should just leave during the break, I cannot get any better.

I probably should have. After the break, we got Brahms’ Serenade no. 1. And I must admit I really don’t get why you can schedule Brahms most boring orchestral work EVER after the masterpiece of the violin concerto.

It really wasn’t the fault of Pappano and the COE not putting in an effort. This was am excellent performance on par with my current reference, Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhaus.

But still I really think the serenades were nothing but trial works for his real symphonies, and I rather would have had ANY other Brahms orchestral work, even the rather silly Academic Festival overture, than this.

Nevertheless, this was truly an evening to remember!

Now I’m looking forward to Julia Fischer and Herbert Blomstedt.

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