Wonderful Bach Concertos with Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust

I mentioned two blog posts ago that I’m a fanboy. I’m a fanboy of Igor Levit, of Murray Perahia, of Sabine Deviehle, but probably one of my favorite artists these days is Isabelle Faust.

I’ve reviewed her countless time on this blog, playing Bach, Mozart, Brahms (here and here), Beethoven. And there are other albums I could have mentioned as well.

The only time I was ever disappointed by a recording by Isabelle Faust was her version of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto with Pablo Heras-Casado.

Therefore, when I went on my “quest” last year to see all of my favorite violin players in one year, I obviously had to go for Alina Ibragimova, Janine Jansen, Lisa Batiashvili, Julia Fischer, and yes, maybe the queen of all, Isabelle Faust. I was very lucky I managed to squeeze all of these live performances into one year.

Isabelle Faust offered one of my preferred programs (I saw her on Lake Geneva last summer during the festival at Château de Tannay), playing exclusively Bach. The program included some of the violin concertos, but also some chamber works. The concert (only slightly spoiled by being in the main air corridor towards Geneva airport) was not surprisingly hugely enjoyable.

So what a pleasure it was when I saw that Faust just released a very similar program on Harmonia Mundi

Bach: Violin Concertos – Isabelle Faust – Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin (Harmonia Mundi 2019)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Violin Concertos Sinfonias Overture Sonatas Isabelle Faust Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin Bernhard Forck, Xenia Loeffler Harmonia Mundi 2019

Isabelle Faust had recorded the violin concertos previously around the year 2000, with Helmut Rilling for the Hänssler label (included in their complete Bach edition). Already this recording was really very nice.

But here it get’s even better. The keywords here are precision, balance, and a complete lack of showmanship. This is one of the most introvert recordings of these concertos that I’ve ever heard.

Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a lot of freedom with these works, at witnessed by the very beautiful recording of Alina Ibragimova with Arcangelo which I reviewed last year.

So this recording is the complete opposite. That said, I like it probably even a bit better. You really hear all the complexity of Bach’s counterpoint, the delicacy of the different instruments and their balance to form something bigger together. And Faust, just as she did in Tannay, wasn’t the star of the show, but really just one more musician as part of a team.

Another similarity to my Tannay experience is also that this album not only includes all violin concertos, including the reconstructed ones, but also one of the Orchestral Suites, several individual tracks such as the Sinfonia BWV1045, and some chamber music, the trio sonatas BWV 527 and 529. In total, you get nearly 2h30 of music.

If you like Bach and historically informed performance, this album is an absolute must have.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz)

UPDATE March 26: Listening to a recent Gramophone podcast where Gramophone speaks with Faust about this recording, I noticed I completely forgot to mention that Faust doesn’t play her typical Sleeping Beauty Stradivarius, but instead a German Steiner violin that Bach himself would have found familiar. In the interview she explained that this much better fits the ensemble sound than the Stradivarius, and that in general she really tries to be as close to what the composer intended as possible.

It is the same violin already used in the previous recording of the Bach violin sonatas (reviewed here).

In the podcast, the interviewer already said that the upcoming review of this album will be very positive. I’m not surprised.

UPDATE March 30: Classica likes it, but only gives it 4 stars, quoting the slightly remote sound quality, and the sometimes somewhat “martial” style of the orchestra. I can somewhat understand the first point, but don’t agree on the 2nd point.

Whereas Gramophone fully agrees with me and gives this album an “Editor’s Choice” in their April 2019 issue, calling it a “hugely enjoyable celebration of Bach”

My Top 5 Classical Albums Of 2018

So, another year has passed. For me, while it has brought a lot of challenging moments, it also brought me a lot of good luck. And particularly, it brought all of us some exciting new recordings.

In the tradition from 2017, 2016, and 2015, so basically each year since I started this blog, let me summarize my top 5 Classical Albums Of The Year.

Yes, partially I do this because Top something lists always generate a lot of clicks (I don’t make any money on this site, so this is purely for my stupid little ego), but it is also a nice tradition to look back at the year.

And hopefully, it will inspire you to buy some of these (again, I’m not making any money here, but the artists do, as they should).

Igor Levit – Life

Yes, I really like Igor Levit. This may be his most personal album to date. In my original review I’ve described it as A Beautiful Treasure. An absolute must have.

Daniel Trifonov Plays Rach 2 and 4

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

Yes, this is one of my favorite Rach 2 ever. But PLEASE BE AWARE that I wrote in my original review (published as one of the first) that this recording will be controversial. It turned out it is, it is a love it or hate it affair. So please do check it out before you buy.

Rachel Podger’s Four Seasons

Vivaldi Le Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons) Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque Channel Classics DSD 2018

Do you really need yet another version of the Four Seasons? Probably not, let’s be realistic. That said, if you are looking for one, you won’t go wrong with this beautiful account, which combines amazing energy with beautiful recording technology. See here for my original review.

Murray Perahia’s Moonlight and Hammerklavier

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Yes, I’m absolutely certain that this is an album that will stand the test of time. The only argument that you could have is whether the best piece here is the Moonlight (my opinion, see here for my review) or the Hammerklavier (many other reviewers). In any case, get this album, even if you already own these works.

Jean Rondeau Plays Scarlatti

Scarlatti Sonatas Jean Rondeau Erato 2018 (24/96) Warner Classics

As I wrote in my original review, I was really surprised to finally find an album that makes me like Scarlatti. Now is this enough of a reason for YOU to buy it? Will check it out, I think you won’t be disappointed.

You will find the download links in the respective original reviews.

Now back to you, what did I miss? Where do you disagree? What were your classical albums of 2018?

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)

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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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