So I had really high hopes when Grosvenor recently released his latest recording, of nothing less than Liszt’s magnificent b-minor sonata, plus some other works.
Benjamin Grosvenor – Liszt (Decca 2021)
Now, before I go to the meaty bit, the b-minor sonata, let me start by saying that I really love how Grosvenor plays the other pieces on this album, particularly the extract from the Années de Pélérinage.
Also particularly interesting is Liszt’s 15 min piano adaptation of Bellini’s classic, Réminiscenes de Norma, a less often played work.
And I can’t get enough of the beautiful piano adaptation of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
The b-minor sonata
I really love the b-minor sonata, it is to me at least the ultimate Liszt piece. And here’s where we get to my “but” that you probably saw coming from my intro above.
Let me start by the positives: I really like how he takes the Andante sostenuto slower than most, giving it a special sense of intimacy and out-of-this-world spirit.
Now, what am I missing here, in what is actually a very good version?
Well I really believe one needs to go to the biggest extremes in this work (an opinion probably not universally shared). That’s why my favorite versions will remain those of the legendary Martha Argerich, and the somewhat controversial version by Katia Buniatishvili. In some parts, I just wish Grosvenor would push things just a bit further, he certainly has the power and technical abilities to do it.
Nevertheless, this is a beautiful album absolutely worth having.
Regular readers of my blog know that I mainly follow two classical magazines as a reference. One is the UK’s Gramophone, the other France’s Classica Magazine.
Interestingly enough, Classica really is the magazine where I have the most overlap with their reviews, for Gramphone it is a bit more hit and miss.
I’ve commented nearly every year on the Gramophone Awards nominees and winners, but I’ve never written a lot about the equivalent of Classica Magazine, the “Chocs de l’année”.
Classica has a five star rating system for all albums (although I hardly ever see 1 stars appear), but on top of the 5 stars, they also select every months the albums “Choc”, similar to Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice.
And, once per year, Classica publishes their “Chocs de l’année”, i.e the overall best albums of the year.
Let’s have a look together.
Les Chocs de l’année 2019 – Classica Magazine – Artist of the Year
First category is “L’artiste de l’année”, winner is French pianist Michel Dalberto (I can’t help but notice that while Gramophone is a bit biased towards UK artists, Gramophone has the same for their local talent.)
Two albums get a particular mention, his recent 2019 Beethoven sonata album on La Dolce Volta, as well as César Franck solo piano and chamber album on Aparte.
I must admit I really don’t share their excitement for the Beethoven album. Sure, it’s not bad, but I’d clearly prefer others here (among recent choices, Levit, Perahia, Lewis).
The Franck album I haven’t really listened to a lot, he is one of those lesser known French composers that I just have much less experience with. But I’ll check it out more systematically in the future, and so should you.
Label of the Year
Label of the year is the French label Alpha, and here I fully agree. In 2019, the smaller dedicated labels like Alpha, Hyperion, BIS, Chandos, have just become so much more important that the old majors like DG, Sony, Decca, etc.
Here I really can’t comment, I’ve never heard of this album nor of this pianist before. Turns out he’s French as well (did I mention there seems to be some geographical bias somewhere).
In any case, the program of this concept album (obviously around the Revolution) is quite intriguing, from Dussek (yes, I also had to google him), via Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Janacek, Debussy, to Rzewski. I only quickly sampled works I know well, like the Chopin Revolutionary Etude, or the Scherzo no. 1, in both cases I wasn’t blown away. But don’t take this as a proper review, and have a look.
Rachmaninov – The Piano Concertos – Trifonov – Nézét-Séguin (DG 2019)
While I absolutely loved Trifonov’s recording of Rach 2, and was right at predicting that this would be a very controversial version, I still haven’t been able to properly review his approach to Rach 3 (sorry I typically disregard Rach 1 and 4) which was released quite recently.
Classica praises both of them, but I honestly would caution you before you buy the Rach 3 blindly. I can’t put my finger on it, but something is there that I just don’t like as much. I’d be very curious to hear your opinions. Personally, I rather stick to other versions like Leif Ove Andsnes with the LSO.
Two Gounod Operas
Gounod, yet another composer I barely know. A good friend of mine loves his Faust, but to this day, I really haven’t found my way around this composers’ work.
Let me nevertheless mention the two operas here that Classica likes, they clearly know more about French composers than I do. Both come from conductors I personally like very much, Hervé Niquet and Christophe Rousset, you probably won’t go wrong with any of these recordings.
Look out for part II of this blog post in the next days. You’ll find it here.
You can find the new albums of this blog post here (Qobuz), or in the link to the original review.
I’ve written previously about Guy´s great recording of the Brahms piano sonatas. As I was in Paris last weekend, I noticed him giving a piano recital at the Maison de la Radio. Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms sonata no. 3. I was lucky enough to still get tickets.
Guy is one of those underrated pianists that outside of his home country typically are not well known. But I heard good things about his Beethoven cycle as well, and had very high expectations.
François-Frédéric Guy: Clair de Lune – Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms – Live at Maison de la Radio, Paris
Maison de la Radio, hidden in the quite 16th arrondissement of Paris, is a 1960s building that has housed French public radio for decades now.
They have several rooms for public concerts, but the biggest one is the beautiful Auditorium, very recently renovated.
Therefore I already had a visual treat, before the music even started
The concert itself started with Liszt, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude from his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Liszt these days often tends to be underestimated compared to the big names of Brahms and Beethoven. And maybe his orchestral work is not always top notch, and even his very large piano work sometimes tends to go a bit overboard.
But when Liszt gets it right, and is well played (not obvious, given the technical hurdles), it is really just outstandingly beautiful. This was the case here, I was mesmerized by the beauty of this piece.
After this fantastic start came the title piece of the concert, Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata no. 14, (Clair de lune in French). I wasn’t as taken by this part of the concert as I was by the Liszt. One part of the problem was potentially that a young teenager noisily dropped his cell phone and it fell several steps down in the middle of the quiet intense beginning. This kind of stuff really can ruin my mood for a bit.
It may also have been simply the fact that we all have heard the Mondscheinsonate so many times, that we form a certain idea in our head. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautifully played (even with the occasional false note in the Presto), with a lot of rubato in the slow movement, a very personal version. So let’s just blame it on the noisy kid that I couldn’t enjoy this part as much.
After the break, Guy started his Brahms sonata. And wow, he really played is as intensely as I’ve ever heard anybody play Brahms. You could literally see how physically exhausted he was after this long piece of music with its 5 movements. An outstanding experience.
Guy got the applause he deserved, and thanked us with not only one, but two encores.
After another Brahms, we were all ready to get up and leave, but he sat down again, and guess what he played: Für Elise. Yes, that one. the one that every piano student plays, the one that even people who don’t know anything about classical music recognize immediately. And guess what, it showed that there is so much more in this music than typically meets the eye.
A beautiful closure to an evening full of emotions.
I haven’t heard any of the other albums, with some Telemann and Vivaldi, but will check in and maybe report back later.
Hyperion doesn’t stream, so I cannot comment about Cohens/Arcangelos cantata album.
Bach: Matthew Passion – Gardiner
As reviewed here, I fully agree that this is a five star album very much worth having.
I haven’t heard any of the other recommended albums, from Blow (never heard that name before), Couperin, Monteverdi and Scarlatti, but will check them out, as they are by Les Arts Florissants and Christophe Rousset among other, that I really admire.
I haven’t heard any of the first three recommended albums, as they are all 20th century stuff which really isn’t my cup of tea, from Ades, via Bacewicz, Berg, Schönberg, and Webern. I’ll leave this to others.
I´d be interested in trying the Bruch String Quartets as I have very little chamber music from this composer, but Hyperion doesn´t stream so I have no way of risk free trying.
Then there are two Schubert albums. Quatuors 12 and 15 by the Doric Quartet. I have only heard it once on the radio (again, also Chandos doesn´t stream), and liked it, but wasn´t blown away. Not interesting enough for me to spend money blindly on it.
Finally, there is the Death and the Maiden and a quartet by Sibelius by the Ehnes Quartet. Unfortunately, Onyx is another label that doesn´t stream.
So basically, there´s unfortunately not a lot I can contribute to this category, which I usually love.
Several albums in here that are just not my cup of tea, eg. Berkeley or Elgar. Even Haydn´s Season, here with Paul McCreesh, is not a piece of music I´m particularly passionate about. Better to shut up then.
I´m more curious about the Cherubini album by Hervé Niquet, I´ll check that one out later today.
There have been a number of recent recordings of Rachmaninov´s All-Night Vigil, and I´m also very interested by this latest recording of John Scott. I will report back on this one as well.
I´m not a very huge fan of Lisa Batiashvili´s Sibelius and Tchaikovsky album, but this is more due to Barenboim, not Batiashvili´s fault. Augustin Hadelich Tchaikovsky is straightforward, but also not that much my cup of tea.
I will certainly check out Alexandre Tharaud´s Rachmaninov album and report back.
I can´t comment on the albums by Adams and Beach.
I´ll skip the contemporary and early categories, as I don´t feel qualified enough here.
I´ve now played this album many times, and still haven´t fully made up my mind. I kind of like it, but it´s really not my personal reference.
I´d like to comment about Cedric Tiberghien´s Bartok album and Pavel Koselnikov´s Chopin Mazurkas, but due to Hyperion´s no streaming policy I can´t. Side note: I really understand why labels don´t want to support streaming, as the business model is not very attractive, but on the other hand it really limits discovery. Maybe labels should invent a streaming model where you can listen to an album only 2-3 times and then need to purchase it. I find that album´s I can´t test I often don´t buy.
I’ve mentioned Benjamin Grosvenor several times already, including here, and here in my comments about last year’s Gramophone Awards. If you read through these reviews and comments, you’ll quickly see I’m a huge fan. This young artist (he’s only 24!) is really spectacular.
So far, I have yet to hear a disappointing album from him.
So my hopes were high when he released his new album, Homages.
Homages (Decca 2016)
Grosvenor likes albums mixing several composers around a theme. His last album was called Dances, now we’re talking about Homages.
And we start strongly, with Busoni’s piano setting of the famous Chaconne from Bach’s suites for solo violin. This is rather rarely played, which is a pity, as for once a transcription actually adds something (more often than not, they do not work that well for me). You really get the full bandwidth of this beautiful piece, and the outstanding beauty of Milstein’s legendary interpretation comes to mind, while Busoni’s fireworks around the well known melody really works. This sounds almost like Brahms (who by the way also transcribed the Chaconne, but into a version for left hand only), or actually even occasionally like Rachmaninov. A true showpiece, but without any negative connotation that is usually associated with this term.
From this grandiose opening, we move to another rather unfamiliar music, Mendelssohn’s preludes & fuges op. 35. Mendelssohn was essential for the “rediscovery” of Bach in his time, and you can hear the spirit of Bach in these little-known, but beautiful gems.
From these Bach homages, we move on to more traditional romantic piano music with Chopin and Liszt, an area where Grosvenor feels very much at home.
The booklet tries to give some story around why Chopin’s beloved Barcarolle and parts of Liszt’ Années de Pélérinage are homages as well. I must admit I don’t care that much, I just love his playing.
The Barcarolle op. 60 is one of my all time favorites from Chopin. I heard it some years ago by Krystian Zimerman live, in what remains my personal reference. However, this interpretaion really stands on its own, and I like it a lot.Liszt’s Venezia e Napoli is also really well played.
He closes off with Ravel, as already in his Decca debut, focusing Le Tombeau de Couperin, where the homage aspect is already evident from the title.
I wonder if Grosvenor ever will record e.g. an entire cycle or work, or if he’ll stick to this kind of “concept” album. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks to the latter, which is great, because it gets me to discover music I wouldn’t necessarily have discovered without him.
My rating: 4 stars (to clarify: this is absolutely 5 stars playing, but not always essential repertoire)
You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (Prestoclassical)
The new July issue of Gramophone appeared rather early on my iPad (I’m not into paper subscriptions any more).
As usual, impatient that I am, I jump immediately to the Editor’s Choices, starting with the Recording of the Month. This time, Nicolas Angelich recent Dedication Liszt/Schumann/Chopin album. Cool, I think to myself, another great recording to check out of Liszt’s b-minor sonata.
Liszt’s b-minor sonata
I’m not a huge fan of Liszt in general (too much, especially his orchestral works). But there are certain works I really like, including most of all his great b-minor sonata.
My favorite version by the way is Michael Pletnev’s recording on DG by the way (maybe to be reviewed at some point in the future).
In any case, I must admit, I didn’t really even get to listen to the entire Angelich album, I stopped about 5 minutes into the b-minor sonata. I was really stunned. Liszt was supposed to be the greatest virtuoso of his time, and this version, well, let’s just say, it didn’t touch me at all.
To be fair, my taste may not be universal, as I really liked Katia Buniatishvili’s recording on Sony, which was anything if not controversial, to say the least (some just hated it, stating is was too much…).
But again, this post won’t be about Angelich (which I have yet to properly listen to beyond my 5 minute trial) nor about Pletnev or Buniatishvili, but about one of the greatest pianists of all times:
Yes, the fiery Argentine pianist. She has a very particular sound and style (in a blind test on Swiss radio, two experts blindly identified her vs another artist on 5 out of 5 different pieces, and even I got 3 out of 5), and once you’ve heard her, you’ll never forget her.
So I recently found myself buying her legendary debut album, remastered and released as a 24/96 download (I had bought in on CD ages ago, but hadn’t listened to it regularly enough).
Martha Argerich: Debut Recital (DG)
Somehow, the Chopin competition really means something. Look at the winners, Pollini, Blechacz (see here), Yundi, and Argerich! (well, this year seems to be a bit of an outlier, see my comment here). Basically she was a pure genius from day one.
Her Chopin barcarolle, so beautiful. And the Scherzo no. 3, my favorite! Her Brahms is ok, not outstanding, but when we get to Liszt, all hell breaks loose! Already the Hungarian Rhapsody is full of fire and energy, her trademark, but go to b-minor, and check out every savory moment, from the quiet introvert moments to the amazing prestissimo (track 17).
If this leaves you bored, you’re probably deaf.
And now go back to your streaming provider of choice and check out the Angelich against it, and I guess you’ll understand what I mean.
My rating: 5 stars plus!
You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)
Note that getting the 24/96 remaster is not necessarily a must, unfortunately the original recording was already rather poor, and even the remaster still sounds rather like a shoe box.
UPDATE June 11: Another word about the Angelich recording that I browsed over a little bit superficially above.
The Angelich album not only got high praises from Gramophone as mentioned above, but also a Choc from Classica magazine, and this recording of the b-minor sonata was just selected in their June 2017 issue as best version in a blind test comparing 10 recordings out of the ones released in the last 20 years.
Triggered by this I listened again to Angelich. Well, to be fair, it is a good recording. However, I still prefer much more the more extreme versions like Argerich, Bunatishvili, etc. For me, this extreme work requires extreme playing. I find the Angelich a bit too “middle of the road”. But given that several reviewers I really respect disagree with me, you have to check it out.
First of all, to my subscribers, you may have been surprised not to see a post yesterday. This indeed has been the first time since I started this blog nearly 6 month ago that I didn’t post anything on my regular schedule of every 2-3 days. I unfortunately had a health issue in the family. I’ll really target to get fully back on schedule with posts appearing at least every 3 days.
Second, to the Jazz fans among my readers, hope you don’t get bored, my blog has been rather focused on classical music for the last posts. I’m working on getting back to Jazz ASAP.
But well, one more on classical music.
This one was triggered by my mother in law, suggesting I should write about Lang Lang’s latest album. When I spoke to her, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard it yet, but wasn’t a big fan of Lang Lang in general. Her answer was, “So why don’t you compare it to something you like better?”.
Well, here we go.
“Hyped* classical music artists
Every once in a while there are musicians out there, that, usually helped either by YouTube (e.g. Valeria Lisitsa) or by the label (remember Vanessa Mae?) that are rather well-known even to a non classical audience, and have a certain pop-star following. Sometimes (e.g. Jonas Kaufmann) the hype is correlated with quality, more often than not, I find the correlation between fame and quality in classical music to be not very strong.
Lang Lang is a typical example. He’s probably today’s best known pianists (don’t have any data to back this up unfortunately). And as I said to my mother-in-law above, I have yet to hear a Lang Lang album I really like.
But thanks to my streaming subscription I could simply check the latest album out and make up my own mind.
The Chopin Scherzi
A word of introduction on the music: the album consists of the four Chopin Scherzi, and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for piano. I’m not very familiar with the latter, so I’m not going to comment on the performance.
However, I just love the Scherzi. There is an entire world in the 6-12 minutes of each one, and they are among my absolute favorite piano pieces by Chopin.
So my expectations were rather high. And I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.
No. 1 was just too nervous, to ADHD (my wife told me to switch albums when we listened to it together).
No. 2 is nicely flowing at the beginning, but getting a bit quirky over time, and again too nervous in the fast parts.
No. 3 is probably the best of the four, a bit too much still, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.
The worst was probably no. 4, just too much forte all over the place, and just too slow for my taste.
Now, as suggested by my wise mother-in-law, let me write about my recommended alternative.
And actually another form of “hype”, albeit at a smaller scale.
Benjamin Grosvenor at the tender age of 24 has won more awards already than others in a lifetime. He was Gramophone’s youngest-ever double award winner, and the rest of the British (and partially international) press went just as crazy about him.
So how’s the hype working out here?
Well actually, I’m a HUGE fan. His Chopin Liszt Ravel album, which features all 4 Scherzi, is just outstanding, and his more recent release Dances was not far behind in terms of quality (I mentioned it my comments about the 2015 Gramophone awards here).
There are obviously other outstanding versions of the Scherzi out there (Argerich for no. 3, Rubinstein, and the best I’ve heard was Kristin Zimerman for no. 2 in a live concert), but the recording here is pretty close to perfect.
My rating: 3 stars (Lang Lang) vs. 5 stars (Grosvenor)
You can find the Lang Lang here (Qobuz) if you really insist, and the Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical).
The official “making of” of the Lang Lang in Paris album here: