Category Archives: Johann Sebastian Bach

German Baroque Composer

A great recording of Bach’s Orchestral Suites by Zefiro

Bach’s Orchestral Suites

I’ve only written once about the Orchestral Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach before, in my 25 Essential Classical Albums. In that brief article, I’ve called them the “pop” music of classical. I still stand by this label, but really don’t mean this in any negative way.

One (or at least me) cannot only listen to advanced intellectually challenging music all day long. You sometimes want stuff that is just enjoyable, including some all time favorites.

The Orchestral Suites, or Overtures, are just that. I can probably (badly) whistle every single note of the well known melodies.

I bet you can too, at least for the second movement of BWV1068. No idea what I’m talking about? Does “Air on a g-string” ring a bell? If not, go to 6:59 in the YouTube Clip below, and I’m sure you’ll go “ahh, that one”.

 

Yes, that one. Played at numerous weddings and other occasions. Do you now get what I mean by “pop” music?

That said, I can listen to this again, again and again.

Zefiro

Zefiro is an Italian baroque ensemble that I must admit I had never heard of before it popped up among in Gramophone´s April 2017 issue as album of the month.

They are lead by oboist Alfredo Bernadini. I had to check out their website to see that they have already done an impressive number of recordings. I´m surprised I´d never conciously seen them mentioned anywhere so far. I really need to check out more of their recordings.

 

Bach: Overtures – Zefiro (Outthere Music 2017)

Johann Sebastian Bach: Overtures - Zefiro - Alessandro Bernadini - Arcana - 2017 (24/96)

I actually was not particularly interested when I skimmed through Gramophone’s April issue about a month ago. So, yet another recording of the Orchestral suites? It took me a while to really take notice, as I was very happy with the Freiburger Barockorchester recording mentioned in my 25 Essential albums.

But thanks to streaming, I figured, let´s give it a try at least. And I´m glad I did. This is not a recording that will kick the Freiburgers off their throne, but is very good on its own rights.

The playing is engaging, passionate, and transparent. On top of this great playing, you get two reconstructed movements that you won´t find anywhere else.

This really is a very enjoyable album throughout and I highly suggest you check it out.

My rating: 4 stars

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

Easter is Coming Up Again: Time to Recommend A New Outstanding Matthew Passion Recording by John Eliot Gardiner

The Matthew Passion

I’ve previously written about the importance of the Matthew Passion here.

It is probably one of the most relevant works of Bach, which in turn makes it one of the most important works of the entire classical music.

If you want a good entry to understand what this is all about, check out this NPR “guided tour” through this masterpiece.

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not religious at all, but that doesn’t take one bit of the attraction away, the emotions Bach has captured here really has universal appeal.

Bach: St. Matthew Passion – John Eliot Gardiner (SDG 2017)

My previous and still valid recommendation for the Matthew Passion remains John Butt’s outstanding recording of the 1742 version, with the Dunedin Consort. I’ve listed it in my 25 Essential Classical Music Albums.

But when the great John Eliot Gardiner decided to re-record this masterpiece nearly 30 years after his legendary DG Archiv version, I had to write about this.

Bach St Matthew Passion John Eliot Gardiner SDG 2017 24/96

Actually, I had heard it even before it was released, as I had the pleasure of seeing Gardiner with his Monteverdi Choir live at the KKL in Lucerne last spring. During this European tour this album was recorded (a bit later in 2016, at Pisa Cathedral).

I don’t know why I didn’t write about this concert before, as it was such an outstanding performance. Therefore, I’m extremely happy it was recorded.

I wasn’t always been with Gardiners recent recordings (see here and here), even his new recording of the b-minor mass left me a bit cold.

But this one is pure perfection again. Gramophone agrees and gives it a “Recording of the Month” for April. Germany’s Fono Forum is also on board, with 5 stars.

How does Gardiner compare against John Butt?

Well, actually there are more similarities than differences. Both are historically informed, both favor transparency over let’s say the power of a Karl Richter.

Both have excellent singers, both have an outstanding period ensemble. As mentioned above, Butt uses the more rarely heard 1742 version, but the differences are small.

Where Gardiner has the edge, is probably in even more increased transparency, in a way it sounds even more intimate. On the other hand, you get a bit more emotional power with the Dunedins in some of the choral scenes.

But here we’re talking very minor differences, it is very clear that Gardiner has recorded a reference version. Do yourself a favor and listen to it.

My rating: 5 stars

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

Rafal Blechacz Plays Bach – Beautifully!

Where’s the Jazz gone?

Yes, I know, I’ve been writing an awful lot about classical music since the new year, and Jazz has suffered a bit. This has a multitude of reasons: reader requests (for my essential 25 classical albums), concert visits (see my report on Alondra de la Parra here), or exciting new releases, such as the one I’ll be writing about in this post.

I simply haven’t seen that many exciting new Jazz releases recently. However, I have some in the making, including Sarah McKenzie’s latest album, so if you’re more into Jazz than Classical and follow my blog, don’t dispair, I’ll get back to it.

Bach: Again?

Yes, I know, I write an awful lot about Bach. If you look at the stats (you can find them in the large categories menu on the side) of my posts about different composers, he leads by far with 25 posts as of today (mid February 2017), even ahead of my beloved Johannes Brahms (with 17 posts so far).

Why is this? Well, I think I’ve written before, you can never have enough Bach. He is probably the most important composer of all times, at least to me. Maybe I should rename my blog title after all.

Rafal Blechacz

I’ve written about Blechacz several times already, first about his amazing Chopin Preludes, then mentioning him both in My Top 10 Classical Pianists, and more recently, even adding his Preludes to my 25 Essential Classical albums.

Maybe that is a bit too much praise for a 31 year old pianist who has only recorded a small handful of albums so far, one of which I didn’t even like (his 2013 recording of the Chopin Polonaises). And then again, maybe it isn’t. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live once and was really impressed.

So in a way it was a big bet putting him (together with Benjamin Grosvenor, another outstanding young talent) into my Top 10 pianists, while leaving out geniuses like Horowitz or Richter.

Well, luckily, we now have one more piece of supporting evidence with his latest release on Deutsche Grammophon.

Johann Sebastian Bach – Rafal Blechacz

Johann Sebastian Bach - Rafal Blechacz - Deutsche Grammophon 2017 24/96

 

The title of the album couldn’t be simpler: Johann Sebastian Bach. A clear statement.

You get an interesting mix of the Italian Concerto BWV971, partitas no. 1 and 3, and some smaller pieces including the ear worm piano arrangement of the Cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, better known for my English speaking readers under Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.

So how does Blechacz (winner of the legendary Chopin competition) move from Chopin, the master of the romantic piano, to Bach, back to completely different music, that was composed for instruments that were very far from the modern Steinway?

Actually, suprisingly well. And if you think about it, it is not that surprising at all. Chopin was heavily influenced by Bach. Note the title “Preludes”, which is taken straight from the baroque repertoire, and is clearly inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Let’s put this new album against some tough competition:

My favorite version of the Italian Concerto is by another of my Top 10 classical pianists, Murray Perahia, on his 2003 SACD, and Blechacz really doesn’t need to hide here. What differentiates Blechacz I guess is his very individual touch, always gentle, even when he plays loudly. I wouldn’t replace Perahia by Blechacz, but I could very easily live with both versions, having their individual quality. Side note: Two other versions of this concerto I can recommend are by Claire-Marie Le Guay on her beautiful Bach album, and if you prefer to listen to this on a harpsichord, go for the brilliant Pierre Hantaï.

On the partitas, my preferred versions are again Perahia, but also Igor Levit’s beautiful recording (both on Sony). Claire-Marie Le Guay also has recorded partita no. 1 on the above mentioned album. Can Blechacz add new insights? Well, maybe not insights, but a different viewpoint. He has a beautiful playfulness, making this a really individual take on Bach. I find it very enjoyable.

And closing the album with Myra Hess’ arrangement of the Bach cantata is a beautiful round-up to a new addition to the Bach universe.

Is this album essential? Maybe not. Is this album immensely enjoyable? Absolutely yes!

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters, currently offering a 20% discount for the week that I’m writing this).

 

UPDATE April 2, 2017: In its April 2017 issue, Classica agrees, calling it a “CHOC”, i.e. 5 stars, and praising it immensely.

 

My Top 5 Classical Albums for 2016

My Top 5 Classical Albums for 2016

I know, people love lists. Especially men apparently. Remember Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity? Subjectively speaking, half of the book are top 5 lists. Somebody even bothered to compile them.

Why do we love lists? Well, they are easily digestable, and give you the feeling that you really are getting the best of the best, right?

I must admit, I also pay quite a bit of attention to such lists, be it the Gramophone Awards, the Chocs de l’Année by Classica, or whoever else bothers to put together such best-of’s. Even on my own blog, my various best-of lists (from Mozart, to Christmas Jazz, to Jazz Covers) tend to be the ones with the most clicks.

So here we go again. Helpful even if you’re still looking for Christmas gifts (though in the age of downloads and streaming, giving away music becomes more tricky, an iTunes Gift Card is probably not very sexy under the tree).

They are ordered alphabetically, by composer. Please don’t ask me to rank them within.

So you DO ask me? Really?

Well, here you go. Note that this priority list may change next week if I’m in a different mood.

  1. Mozart: The Weber Sisters
  2. Schubert: String Quintet
  3. Bach: French Suites
  4. Mozart: Mass in C-minor
  5. Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 5, 8, and 9

Again, as all my reviews, this list is very subjective, and not only based on the performance itself, but how much fun I have listening to you.

 

Bach: French Suites – Murray Perahia

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Perahia this year not only made it into my list of top 10 pianists (yes, yet another list), he is the only baroque album of 2016 onto this particular list.

A fantastic album (see my full review here), getting the well deserved Gramophone Editor’s Choice.

 

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor – Masaaki Suzuki 

Mozart appears twice in my top 5 list this year, this is not on purpose, but a very happy circumstance. The playing of Mozart has evolved so much since the days of big orchestral Karajan, historically informed practice really has given us so many new insights into Mozart. Here we have two excellent examples.

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

Suzuki’s excellent new recording of the amazing C-minor Mass really is good enough to justify it’s place on this list. You’ll find my review here. Suzuki’s often very clean style doesn’t always convince me, but here we really have a winner.

 

Mozart: The Weber Sisters – Sabine Devielhe

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

Technically, this is an album that was released in November 2015 and I reviewed it last December. But I reviewed it after my Top 5 classical albums of 2015, so I it deserves to be highlighted here as well.

This is Mozart singing as beautiful as it gets. It’s a bit of a “concept album”, based on Mozart’s wife Constanze Weber, and her sisters. But honestly, you don’t need the booklet here to enjoy a voice that touches your heart directly.

 

Schubert: String Quintet – Quatuor Ebène & Gautier Capuçon

Schubert String Quintet - Lieder - Quatuor Ebène - Gautier Capuçon - Matthias Goerne ERATO 2016

As reviewed here, this is one of the best versions ever of the absolute masterpiece that is Schubert String Quintet. It was one of the Gramophone Award nominees in it’s category, I have no idea why it didn’t win.

 

Shostakovich: Symphonies No. 5, 8 and 9 – Andris Nelsons

Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5, 8 & 9 - Andris Nelsons - Boston Symphony Orchestra

I didn’t have time yet to write a formal review about this album.

As mentioned previously, I don’t often venture into 20th century music.

This album however, is really worth it. Shostakovich 5 and 9 are probably among the most approachable symphonies from the Russian genius, and these are so well played here by Nelsons in extremely engaging live recordings with the BSO.

My rating: 5 stars

So now it’s your turn

Do you agree, disagree? Anything I’ve missed? Anything that shouldn’t be on there? Please tell me in the comments!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Perahia:  here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters).

Mozart Great Mass: here (eclassical)

Mozart: the Weber Sisters: here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

Schubert: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Shostakovich: here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

 

Mozart’s C-minor Mass: A New Reference by Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan

Can a Japanese ensemble play Bach? Of course they can, and even at an astonishing level.

I’ve yet to hear a recording with Suzuki and his Bach collegium Japan that wasn’t worth checking out at least.

The only thing you can sometimes say about their recordings is that they can be a bit too polished, too perfectionist, and therefore a bit too well behaved.

Moving from Bach to Mozart, they already released a quite beautiful recording of the requiem in 2014.

The C-Minor Mass

I’ve written previously about this absolute masterpiece by Mozart, and recommended Louis Langrées version, and Herreweghe’s classic. This recommendation is still valid,  however, the Japanese really throw in a new very serious competitor.

Mozart: Great Mass in c-minor / Exsultate Jubilate – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan –  Carolyn Sampson – Olivia Vermeulen – Makoto Sakurata – Christian Immler (BIS 2016)

What is spectacular about this album is the sheer transparency. The typical precision of the Bach Collegium really helps illuminate every little detail in the recording.

The typical outstanding recording quality by BIS obvously helps.

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

This really draws you into the work, and makes it sound like something new, that you’ve never heard before.

Of the two female singers, while I like Olivia Vermeulen, Carolyn Sampson is even more gorgeous. Listen to her in the Et Incarnatus Est, and it really will make you cry. Such a beauty!

The Exsultate Jubilate K165 in contrast is nice, but clearly a work of a very young Mozart (he was 17 when he wrote it). You won’t regret getting it, but we’re far away from the masterpiece that is the K427.

In summary, will this kick Herrweghe off the throne? Well, not exactly, but in my opinion he gets to share the top position from now on.

Check it out!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (eclassical)

UPDATE December 2, 2016: In the latest December issue, Gramophone agrees, giving it an Editor’s Choice and calling it one of the best period instrument choices.

Murray Perahia’s French Suites – A Must Have

Japanese Art – Ukiyo-e

I must admit while I feel at least somehow reasonably comfortable with my understanding of Western art and paintings, I’m pretty ignorant when it gets to Japanese art.

Nevertheless, Bach’s music often reminded me of the the abstracted image I have in my head of Japanese art (mainly the Ukiyo-e style) often depicting landscapes, with delicate details of trees and flowers.

Why am I writing this here? Well, the latest recording by Murray Perahia makes me permanently think of this. These Japanese artworks often are woodblock prints. This essentially woks by chiseling away wood around the outlines of the drawing.

Murray Perahia’s French Suites

Well, in a way, that is exactly how I hear Perahia play these little miniature gems that are the French suites. He chisels away all everything superfluous and only leaves you with the outlines, and what remains is something of outstanding beauty.

Johann Sebastian Bach: The French Suites - Murray Perahia (24/96) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

My first encounter, as so often with Bach, was via the Glenn Gould recordings, and I also had the version by Keith Jarrett for a long time. Since then I’ve added about 3-4 other versions to my collection.

However, this really is the new star for me. I’ve listed Perahia in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists post, especially for his Bach (his Goldberg are among my absolute best versions there are out there).

And here again, he doesn’t disappoint. This is intellectual and emotional at the same time, something which is sometimes hard to achieve with Bach’s keyboard music, as artists tend to focus either on one or the other.

Here’s the official trailer so you get an idea what to expect:

By the way, Gramophone agrees and has listed this as their “Editor’s Choice” for their November issue. Classica is also globally positive,  giving 4 stars (the highest rating below the CHOC, their equivalent of a five star).

No hesitation on my side however:

My rating: 5 stars

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

UPDATE Nov 29: if you need any further reassurance: French magazine Diapason has given this album it’s highest rating, the Diapason d’or, in the November issue. And it was named “recording of the month” by BBC Music magazine.

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.

7318599920009_600

 

  • 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: