Category Archives: Edvard Grieg

Norvegian Composer

Musicophile’s Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists

Top 10 and Best-Ofs

I don’t do top 10 lists often. I probably should to them more often, as if you’re a blogger you know that they tend to generate higher than average traffic, somehow either Google or more likely the average reader tends to like this kind of lists (and I must admit, I tend to click on other peoples “best of lists” as well), but I usually prefer to write about individual albums instead.

My Personal Top 10 Pianists

That said, the idea for this particular blog post came along while doing some comparative listening for a future blog post on Schubert’s piano sonatas. I noticed I always keep going back to a certain number of pianists, that I love and respect, and that usually always have something to say.

Obviously, this list is highly subjective. This is not supposed to be “Great pianists of the century” or Top 100 pianists of all times, you’ll find plenty of those on the internet already.

So obviously, there will be great names missing, Schnabel, Arrau, Rubinstein, Brendel, Trifonov, etc. etc. etc.

I’ll be listing them in alphabetical order, as there is absolutely no way I’ll try to rank them.

So, here we go:

  • Leif Ove Andsnes

Not very suprisingly, given that I’ve already listed him here for my all time favorite version of Grieg’s piano concerto, and have praised his recent Beethoven cycle with the Chamber orchestra of Europe.

I’ve seen him live playing Beethoven’s concerti 2-4 in a row, without a conductor. An amazing experience.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Andsnes has also recorded an excellent version of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos with Antonio Pappano, which I have yet to review.

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I guess that covers such a large range of the romantic piano concertos that it is pretty clear why I’m choosing him. Note I could have mentioned many other beautiful recordings, including solo piano or chamber music.

 

  • Martha Argerich

Well I said I’m not going to rank the pianists, but Martha clearly makes it all the way to the top of the list.

With her, you can really start at the beginning, with her legendary debut album following her winning the 1965 Warsaw Chopin competition. 

Or go to a very recent recording around 50 years later of Argerich playing Mozart’s concertos, as mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Or, for the sake of it, pretty much everything she has recorded in between. The only exception are some of the live recordings from her beloved Lugano festival, not all of them are necessarily must haves. But beyond that, you can be sure that her energy to enchant you!

Here is another example:

Martha Argerich Rachmaninov 3 Tchaikovsky 1 Riccardo Chailly Kirill Kondrashin

There are several “complete”, “best of”  and “collection” boxes out there. All are highly recommended.

 

  • Rafal Blechacz

Together with Benjamin Grosvenor and Igor Levit, among the youngest on this lists.

I had to list him already for his outstanding Chopin Préludes, as reviewed previously.

Another recording I can recommend is his Debussy and Szymanowksi album from 2012.

Debussy Szymanowksi Rafal Blechacz Deusche Grammophone 2012

I’ve seen him live play Chopin and Szymanowski, and I was really impressed by this timid young man and the intimacy of his playing. Somebody to watch.

 

  • Ronald Brautigam

Playing on an “authentic” piano that sounds like the composer would have heard the piece is a relatively recent trend, as techniques in the reconstruction of the fortepiano, and alongside the specific playing skills for these instruments have evolved.

I’ve already mentioned his beautiful version of Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (review of part I here, part II here).

However, what I recommend most often is his outstanding complete Beethoven sonata cycle. Obviously this doesn’t replace the efforts on modern piano from Schnabel to today, but you really owe it to yourself to discover how Beethoven can sound on a piano of that time, exceptionally well played by this amazing artist.

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  • Emil Gilels

Why Gilels as a representative of the great pianists of the 1950s-70s, and not Rubinstein, or Richter, or Horowitz?

Well, honestly, all of them would have deserved to be listed here. I’m just having a very special attraction to his Brahms concertos, be it with Jochum (reviewed here) or with Fritz Reiner and the CSO.

Another album that is his outstanding recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, an all time classic.

 

Edvard Grieg Lyric Pieces Emil Gilels Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

 

  • Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve just recently praised his latest album, Homages (review here), and given 5 stars to his Chopin Liszt Ravel album here. He was also nominated for the Gramophone awards for his album Dances in 2015, which he should have won (IMHO).

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

He is probably the youngest of my list (note to self, do some fact checking), and among his few recordings, all are just amazing. This is one of the most outstanding talents I’m aware of.

 

  • Igor Levit

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve praised this great young artist several times already.

Most lately for his Gramophone Album of the Year: Bach / Beethoven /Rzewski, see here for my review, and here as well, as well as in my article about the top 5 classical albums of 2015.

Back in 2015, his Bach Partitas album was also nominated by Gramophone for an Award in the Instrumental category.

But there is one album I haven’t mentioned yet on my blog, which I also like very much, his debut on Sony.

And no, he didn’t start easy, he tackled immediately Beethoven’s late piano sonatas.

Igor Levit Beethoven The Late Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24 96 2015

And how! This is not only technically impressive (the Hammerklavier always is) but such a high level of musicality. Again, watch this artist!

 

  • Ivan Moravec

Very simply, for the most beautiful Chopin Nocturne recording there is, see my review here. But basically, his other Chopin is also excellent. I actually don’t have any recording from other composers by him. I’ll investigate!

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

 

  • Murray Perahia

No idea why I haven’t written more about Perahia. I’ve mentioned him as one of my favorite Goldberg players, and his Bach in general is excellent (will need to write about his new French suites at some point).

But fundamentally, this is one of the pianists that really adds new insights to whatever he touches. Never flashy, never show-off, but always nuanced.

As an example, let me take his Schumann, which is among the best recordings I know of these little gems:

Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Fantasiestücke Murray Perahia CBS Sony

 

  • Krystian Zimerman

Again, an artist I haven’t mentioned enough. A living legend to me, winner of the 1975 Chopin competition in Warsaw (he’s the third from this illustrous list, together with Argerich and Blechacz).

Which album to mention? Usually he records relatively few albums, so you can pretty much trust them to be top notch in general.

My preferred is probably his Chopin Ballades:

Chopin: 4 Ballades, Barcarolle, Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Gramophon

I’ve heard him play live couple of years ago, including the Barcarolle. He maybe the most intellectual pianist I’m aware of, and you can hear the cerebral approach he takes. That said, this isn’t to say that his music isn’t full of emotion.

I could also have mentioned his Chopin piano concerto recordings, be it with the LA Phil or the Polish Festival orchestra, both are among the best there is for these works.

 

What do You think?

So, here we go. What do you think? Do you agree, disagree? Did I miss anybody (I’m sure I did, with this artificial cut off of 10). Please let me know?

You can find the albums mentioned here in the respective links to previous posts, or below:

 

Alice in Grieg’s Wonderland

The usual excuses first

I’ve been crazy busy the last weeks being home on average about 1-2 nights per week, the rest full of business and private travel. Therefore, my blog writing has suffered quite a bit.

And this is not because of a lack of interesting new albums to write about. Well, on Jazz, it partially is, while I do have two reviews upcoming, this site may be a bit disappointing for you currently if you’re more in to Jazz than Classical music. Hope you bear with me.

But with regards to classical, there have been a number of interesting albums released recently, all of which I have planned to write about, including Andreas Staier’s new Schubert Trios, Benjamin Grosvenor’s new release, Adam Laloum getting into Schumann and Schubert, the Chiaroscuro Quartet playing Hadyn, the Belcea Quartet playing Brahms, etc. etc.

OK, so the paragraph above should put enough pressure on me to actually write all these reviews in the next weeks, where hopefully my travel activity should be a bit more measured.

Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott is a young pianist (born 1988) of German and Japanese origin. She’s recorded already quite a number of albums but the only one I have had on my radar screen so far is her recording of the Complete Waltzes by Chopin. I kind of liked that album, but then again the waltzes are about my least favorite Chopin works relatively speaking, so I didn’t spend much time on it.

Wonderland

Honestly, the title of her latest album put me off a little bit, the wordplay is just a little bit too obvious. But then again, you don’t buy a book for it’s cover, and the same logic should apply for classical albums.

Wonderland Grieg Piano Concerto Lyric Pieces Alice Sara Ott Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/48

And I’m happy I went further, because this recording of the piano concerto is really worth it.

I’ve previously written about Javier Perianes who did a similar coupling of the piano concerto with the Lyric pieces (see my review here), and this recording, while being quite different, is really at the same level.

If you want to compare the two, Perianes is probably the more energetic, Ott with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the BR symphony takes a more lyrical approach. You’ll get lots of rubato (the concept of “stealing” time to give it back later, i.e. variations of the tempo), with some moments being even extremely slow (already in the opening bars for example).

But unlike the recent recording of the Schumann piano concerto by Melnikov, where I was a bit put off with the slow speed of the third movement, here all slow moments make perfect sense to me. And don’t get me wrong, when the piece needs energy and passion, you’ll get plenty.

Does this version beat my reference version from Leif Ove Andsnes? Well, not exactly, but it is clearly a worthy alternative.

As a “filler”, you don’t get the usual coupling with Schumann, but similar to Perianes, you get a selection of the Lyric pieces, and given that these are little gems, they are very much worth having. To lighten things up a bit more, you even get piano transcriptions of Grieg’s most famous piece, Peer Gynt, in the mix.

My rating: 4 stars

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Gramophone’s Editor’s Choices Sometimes Leave Me Puzzled

I just wrote about the Quatuor Ebène’s brilliant new Schubert recording, which received an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone. This legendary magazine is obviously among the ultimate references in reviewing classical music.

Therefore, I checked out another Editor’s Choice from Gramophone’s May Edition:

Tchaikovsky & Grieg: Piano Concertos – Denis Kozhukin – Vassily Sinalsky – Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin (Pentatone 2016)

Tchaikovsky & Grieg: Piano Concertos - Denis Kozhukin - Vassily Sinaisky - Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin Pentatone 2016 DSD

Then I started listening. And couldn’t believe my ears. The Tchaikovsky is about as far as my idea of an ideal recording as it could be.

To be fair, I’m not a big fan of Tchaikovsky in the first place (see also here), and I have played his 1st piano concerto too much in my youth, unfortunately on another recording which today I really don’t like, Evgeny Kissin’s famous (or notorious) recording with Herbert von Karajan and the BPO.

To give you an idea how for my ears this concerto should be played, check out this legendary 1943 concerto played by Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini:

This version really couldn’t be any more different to this new Pentatone release

So what does Patrick Rucker praise in his review? He mainly compliments Kozhukin’s naturalness. And I get that. The slow movement of the Grieg for example is beautifully played (I still prefer Andnes by quite a bit though). However, he then goes on and writes “you’re left with one thing: the music”. Well I really don’t get it, to me this music without the full power of the emotion of these romantic masterpieces is missing so much, TOO much for me.

My rating: Three stars (I don’t want to give Kozhukhin less than this, as I can clearly hear from this album that he has potential, although if I follow my own rating system systematically, it should have been 2 stars, as I’ll definitely won’t be listening to this album again).

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

P.S. I already had this recording typed out and ready for publishing when I read the review in the just released May issue of Classica Magazine, my other reading of choice.

And guess what: Two stars! (out of 5), to quote Clément Serrano about the Tchaikovsky “sans prise de risque”, without risk-taking, and similar, although slightly friendlier words about the Grieg. He reminds his readers again about the recent Perianes – Oramo recording of the Grieg, and I couldn’t agree more.

So in a nutshell, never trust a single review of a classical music album, even if it comes from a very reputable source, but always make up your own mind before buying. Luckily, in the days of streaming services, this is easier than ever.

A Follow-Up on Grieg’s Piano Concerto – Andsnes Still Wins

Disques en lice

I’ve mentioned several times that Swiss radio has two great shows, one in German, one in French, that both have the same approach, select 5-6 versions of a classical work, get 2-3 experts and a  moderator in a radio studio, and have the experts compare these versions blindly. The German version is called Diskothek im Zwei, the French version is called Disques en lice.

I follow both regularly. I often don’t agree with the invited experts, but it is a really nice challenge to see if you listen to the same music without knowing who’s playing, you still like it (or maybe like it less if you’re not aware one of your heros is playing).

A similar concept exists with wine (my other passion), and unlike my wife who has a much better nose, I’m only average at blind tastings. Luckily, I usually do better with music.

Grieg’s piano concerto

I’ve already written about Grieg’s piano concerto previously in this post about Javier Perianes recent recording. There I mentioned that my all time favorite is the version with Leif-Ove Andsnes.

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes Maris Jansons Berliner Philharmoniker

I’m a big Andsnes fan boy, as also documented in my recent commentary about his Beethoven concertos here. So I was really hoping that Disques en lice would include his version, as I wanted to ensure that I still like the version when actually I don’t know it’s him. Luckily for me they did (link to the show here).

Let me brag a little here (sorry!), but I recognized his version blindly in all three movements, and am still as enthusiastic about it as before! I really don’t know how one could do this concerto any better than Andsnes and Jansons.

The competition included:

  • The very recent Vadym Kholodenko recording on Harmonia Mundi with the Norjan Radion Orkesteri. Well, overall I kind of liked the version but must agree with the experts that the orchestra just isn’t the same level than the others, so this got kicked out after the first round (3 stars)
  • Nikolai Lugansky with Kent Nagano and the DSO Berlin: well, ok, but nothing special. Also got voted out rather rapidly, fine by me (3 stars)

The three versions that made it to the final round (3rd movement) are Andsnes, and these two:

  • Nelson Freire, Rudolf Kempe, with the Munich Philharmonic. Interesting version, the still very young Freire has tons of energy here. Unfortunately I liked the orchestral playing quite a bit less (4 stars overall). Nevertheless, this version convinced one  of the three commenting experts

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Radu Lupu André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra Decca

  • Radu Lupu, André Previn, London Symphony. This version won for the two other experts. Well, I get what they like, Lupu is obviously doing an outstanding job, and the way they play the 2nd movement is out of this world! Unfortunately, overall this version is just a tad too slow for me, losing too much energy in the process especially in the first movement (still 4 stars though).

Therefore, Andsnes remains my hero for Grieg, and I reconfirm my 5 stars for this album!

The Perianes version from my last post was played at the beginning of the show unfortunately “hors concours”, I still like this recording a lot

And the Moog recording I commented about last time I’ve seen reviewed twice now. Gramophone really loved it, Classica in the latest issue only give it 3 star, in line with my rating.

Two new recordings of the Grieg Piano Concerto 

Edvard Grieg

Edvard Grieg is one of the two (three if you count Nielsen) well known Scandinavian composers, the other one being Sibelius.

In most minds, when you ask about Grieg you’ll hear about the famous a-minor piano concerto, and obviously the Peer Gynt suite (Morning Mood has been abused in many commercials, and In the Hall of the Mountain King is well known from many occasions from a cover by The Who to being used in Disney cartoons).

The Grieg  concerto is in a way an archetype of the romantic piano concerto. It is often coupled on disc with the somehow similar a-minor concerto by Schumann, not surprisingly given that the latter inspired the former (apparently young Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform the work and was impressed).

Leif Ove Andsnes

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I’ve liked this concert for a very long time (and what is not to like about it). At some point I did some extensive research to find my preferred version, and ended up with Leif-Ove Andsnes’ version with Maris Janssons conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m not sure if it is a coincidence that Andsnes is Norvegian as well, in any case, this version has all the passion and energy I’m looking for in this work.

I recently subscribed to Qobuz’ streaming service. I still like purchasing music (downloads in my case), as it seems to be the only way where the artist has a decent chance of making some money. That said, streaming is a great tool to discover new music. Whatever comes out, the moment it is published you can listen to it immediately in CD quality. So nice!

Back to topic: basically, Qobuz alerts you to all new releases, so out of interest I listened to two new versions that came out very recently: Javier Perianes with the BBC Symphony under Sakari Oramo, and Joseph Moog with the Deutsche Radiophilharmonie Saarbrücken conducted by Nicholas Milton.

Joseph Moog

0880040414421_600

Let me start by the latter: well, not much to write home about.  Not really my cup of tea, 3 stars. Lacking exactly the energy and passion I so much love with Andsnes.

Javier Perianes

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So I didn’t expect much from the Perianes either, also given the fact that I hadn’t heard about this Spanish pianist beforehand (although I found out later he has won a number of competitions). I was very positively surprised. While not kicking Andsnes of his throne, this version is very good indeed. In the meantime, my opinion was confirmed by both Gramophone and Classica (the latter even giving it a “Choc”, their way of saying 5 stars).

I wouldn’t go just as far, but this is a very solid four star to me and well worth recommending. Perianes had made it onto my personal watch list.

UPDATE August 2015: Gramophone doesn’t agree with me on the Moog, and gives it an Editor’s Choice. My opinion stands, I purchased the Perianes and like it very much, and I continue not to be moved very much by the Moog. YMMV.

Update September 2015: A follow-up post on this topic can be found here, with more detail on the Andsnes and some other recordings.

With regards to Perianes, also check out my review of his excellent Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte here.