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).

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)

 

The Legendary Bach Chaconne – My Favorite Keyboard Versions

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

If you follow my blog you know I like Bach. A lot. So how come I’ve never written about one of his greatest masterpieces, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin?

Honestly, no idea. Maybe because while I actually really admire the works, listening to solo violin is really an experience, in spite of all the artistic beauty of the composition, is not something I can bring myself to do everyday.

The most famous piece of the 6 works, BWV 1001-1006 is without doubt the Chaconne in D-minor of BWV1004.

It is mind-blowing not only by it’s length (around 14 min), while the average of the other parts is around 5 min only, but also by the amazing harmonic complexity (See below an example with Hillary Hahn.).

 

My favorite version of the original violin work is by the legendary Nathan Milstein (note there’s a mono and stereo version, plus several live recordings), but others, such as Henryk Szeryng, Isabelle Faust, or Rachel Podger, are also highly recommended.

Nathan Milstein Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin EMI 1954-1965

I found this beautiful quote from Joshua Bell about the Chaconne on Wikipedia: “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”. Well, there you go. And I fully agree.

Nevertheless, these works were largely forgotten for a long time and only rediscovered in the late 18th century by Schumann and Brahms.

Which gives me a perfect segue to what I’ll be writing about. The Chaconne, which is actually quite polyphonic (a daunting task on a solo instrument like the violin), has been transcribed for keyboard instruments many times. And I find myself listening to the keyboard transcriptions more often than the violin original (ok, I’m an amateur pianist myself, so I’m probably biased).

Transcription by Johannes Brahms – Jean Rondeau

One of the first transcriptions was actually done by Johannes Brahms himself, and just to make it “easier”, he wrote it for the left hand only.

It’s been played by many great pianists, like the legendary Krystian Zimerman.

My current favorite version of this piece however was released quite recently by French Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau on his album of Bach transcriptions called Imagine.

Jean Rondeau - Bach - Imagine Erato 24/96

Rondeau plays with a lot of insight and passion and a lot of rubato. In many ways, you can feel some of the romanticism of Brahms in this particular version (which probably is just me making things up, as Brahms didn’t compose this after all). The sound of Rondeau’s cembalo is particularly beautiful on this recording. The rest of the album is equally beautiful and highly recommended.

 

Transcription by Federico Busoni – Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016  

I’ve previously written about the great English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and his beautiful album Homages. He starts this album with the Busoni transcription. Busoni transcription really transforms this solo piece into the sound of an entire orchestra, and requires a true virtuoso to play. Amazing how much the original material of Bach can be transformed and still be of outstanding beauty.

 

Improvision by Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero is another pianist I wanted to write about for a long time. Her specialty is not only being able to play amazing classical music, but to improvise live in front of the audience. Her concerts (and I’ve only been to one of them so far, but want to go again) often include a part where she asks the audience to give their favorite tunes, she picks them up, and starts improvising, like this particular example:

But she also has released albums which include improvisations, like her album Bach and Beyond:

Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond

She also takes the Bach Chaconne and transforms it into something very personal on the piano (much shorter than the original at less than 5 minutes). It is not as impressive as Busoni’s massive version, but her personal touch is so beautiful, this entire album is veyr much worth checking out, and if she ever plays near you, you have to go!

 

You can find the albums here:

Milstein here (Qobuz)

Rondeau here (Qobuz) and here (AcousticSounds)

Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Montero here

 

Update October 30, 2018: Gramophone just published their Gramophone Collection review of all Busoni Chaconne recordings, very much worth reading. A lot of versions for me to check out.

And also note that Igor Levit’s version of the Busoni Chaconne on his new album Life is amazing as well.

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