Musicophile’s Top 10 Chopin Albums

This list was triggered by a very interesting thread on a discussion forum I participate in, on Computer Audiophile. The thread is called “My Essential Classical Albums” by a forum participant called Sphinxsix.

The entire thread is very much worth checking out, I found a lot of recommendations on there already.

But with this specific question regarding Chopin, I noticed that I already pretty much had all the recordings I recommended covered on my blog. So in part, this is also a “best of list” of my Chopin blog posts. But there are also quite a number of albums I haven’t featured yet.

For those albums previously covered, you will find links in the entries below to the original blog posts. In the original blog posts, you’ll also find their respective download links.

1. The Nocturnes – Moravec

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

To me, the Nocturnes are the quintessential Chopin, even more than the Preludes or the Etudes. And when we talk Nocturnes, the legendary Ivan Moravec version really is unbeatable. It is not by coincidence that I’ve ranked Moravec in my in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists for this album alone. I’ve also mentioned this Album in My 25 Essential Classical Music album, as it is so important to me.

2. The Preludes – Blechacz

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

Right after the Nocturnes, the Preludes are my favorite Chopin, both op. 10 and 25 are oustanding achievements. Here again I could have listed dozens of recordings, but for a Top10 list I’d really like to restrict myself to the young Polish pianists Rafal Blechacz, who recorded this as one of his first albums on Deutsche Grammophon after winning the Warsaw Chopin competition. Another “triple winner”, as he also shows up in My Top 10 Classical Pianists and My 25 Essential Classical Music albums with this recording.

3. The Scherzos – Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

Some readers may be suprised that I rank these so high, but these little gems are very close to my heart. Completely different, each one of them is a world on its own.

Here, my favorite version comes from the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

Grosvenor is also a part of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists.

4. Piano Concertos – Krystian Zimerman

Chopin Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2 Krystian Zimerman Polish Festival Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 1999

The legendary Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, himself also winner of the famous Chopin competition, has recorded the concertos twice. Once with the LA Philharmonic under Giulini in the late 1980s. Knowing that Zimerman is one of the most perfectionist pianists out there, if he records something twice, you can be sure, he does it for a reason.

This second recording from 1999 with a hand-picked “Polish Festival Orchestra”, and while the Giulini recording is already excellent, this one really is a true benchmark.

A must have.

My rating: 5 stars

5. Ballades / Barcarolle – Krystian Zimerman

Chopin 4 Balladen Barcarolle Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Grammophon 1988

Zimerman (also one of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists) is also my recording of choice for the Ballades.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Zimerman perform some of these live, including the beautiful Barcarolle that you’ll also find on this outstanding 1988 album. Don’t miss it.

My rating: 5 stars

6. Etudes – Pollini

Chopin Etudes Maurizio Pollini Deutsche Grammophon

A Chopin list without Maurizio Pollini wouldn’t be complete. I could have easily mentioned him for the Preludes, and several of his other Chopin recordings are legendary. He, like Blechacz, Zimerman above and Argerich below, is also a winner of the Warsaw piano competition (Not that this competition is held only every 5 years, winning it is truly a big deal).

The Etudes are technically extremely challenging. Apparently even a true master like Pollini needed cuts in recording (hundreds of them if you believe some reports). In spite of this piecemeal type recording, the result is just fantastic, and can be described with only one word: fantastic.

Perahia would have been a nice alternative, but Pollini really remains the reference.

My rating: 5 stars

7. Argerich Legendary Chopin

Martha Argerich The Legendary 1965 Chopin Recording Emi

Marta Argerich won the Chopin Competion 5 years after Pollini.

This was one of her first recordings. You will never hear Chopin’s sonata no. 3 played more passionately. Argerich (another member of my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists) is in a way the complete opposite of Pollini. Pollini is typically the perfectionist, rational architect, and Argerich is known for her energy and fire. Check out her recording of the piano concertos for another example of her extraordinary talent.

My rating: 4 stars

8. Cello Sonata – Argerich / Rostropovich

Chopin Cello sonata op. 65 Polonaise op. 3 Schumann Adagio & Allegro op. 70 Mstislav Rostropovich Martha Argerich Deutsche Grammophon

Chopin really isn’t well known for his chamber music. So I must admit that until recently I only knew one recording of this, by Sol Gabetta. In preparation of this blog post I checked out several versions, and end up again with the great Martha Argerich, joined here by the cello giant, Mstislav Rostropovich.

My rating: 4 stars (excellent playing, but the music is not as essential as the piano pieces)

9. Mazurkas – Rubinstein

No Chopin list can be complete without the name that is most closely associated with this composer: Artur Rubinstein.

This recommendation is following up to a recommendation in the forum thread that I should check out his earlier recordings. I ended up liking this version most:

Great Pianists Rubinstein Frederic Chopin Mazurkas 1938-1939 Naxos

Yes, it truly is a historic pre-war recording, but the playing really makes up for it. I usually didn’t care so much about these little dances, but Rubinstein really gives these little pieces such a very special meaning, it is a pleasure to listen to.

My rating: 4 stars

10. The Complete Chopin Edition on Deutsche Grammophon

Deutsche Grammophon Complete Chopin Edition 2009

I typically don’t recommend box sets. Even the better ones are typically hit and miss, as they are typically just “recycling” of older catalog material.

But you probably have noticed the large number of yellow covers above, and DG really did a great job on this 17 CD box.

You’ll get the Zimerman piano concertos in the Polish Festival version, the Ballades again by Zimerman, the Pollini etudes, and the Nocturnes by Maria João Pires (my second favorite after Moravec), the Preludes by Blechacz, and the Cello Sonata by Argerich

In a way, you could think that for this blog post pretty much all I did was copy this box set. Well, actually no, I got all of these albums individually over many years (and also I’m not getting any incentive from DG here). But I’m truly impressed by the selection that DG did here (having all this in their archives obviously helped).

On top, you’ll also get the Mazurkas and Valses well played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, some individual pieces with Anatol Ugorsky, the Scherzos by Pollini again, and the piano sonatas by Lilya Zilberstein and Pollini again.

So if you want to kick-off your Chopin journey, this box really is all you need for a start with truly outstanding recordings.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find the recordings either in the respective original blog post or here:

Concertos / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical) (note that Presto has a special offer on Zimerman recordings until the end of 2017)

Ballades / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Etudes / Pollini: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich Legendary 1965 recording: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich Rostropovich Cello Sonatas: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin Mazurkas Rubinstein here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

The Complete Chopin Edition here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Ray Brown – 3 Dimensional – Swinging Like Crazy

Ray Brown

I only recently noticed that the Jazz giant Ray Brown doesn’t have his own blog entry yet.

What a miss!

To be fair, I’ve written about several records featuring him already, like Gene Harris’ Listen Here (a 1989 album), Oscar Peterson’s Night Train and Plays The Cole Porter Song Book (from 1962 and 1959 respectively), which also shows how long this genius has been active. I was very lucky to see him live once with his trio, back in the early 1990s about when the album below came out.

I even listed one of his albums with his own trio, Summer Wind, Live at the Loa in my 25 Essential Jazz albums.

Ray Brown really made the Oscar Peterson trio special. Obviously, Peterson is a genius himself, but only the extreme synergy with Brown made his trio work so outstanding. I personally don’t think his later work with other bassists like Nils Henning Ørsted Pedersen was ever the same level of fun as his first and main trio.

But still, no dedicated blog entry. Let me rectify this on a sunny autumn saturday morning, where the sunny mood of this great album is just the perfect fit for my mood.

Ray Brown Trio: 3 Dimensional (Concord Jazz 1992)

Ray Brown Trio 3 Dimensional Concord Jazz 1992

This album was released on Concord Jazz, a small Jazz label formed by Jazz Enthousiast Carl Jefferson. Unfortunately, soon after this album was produced, in 1994, Jefferson passed away and this great little label was sold.

Probably due to these changes in ownership, to this day, it is a bit trickier to find this album, I’ve given you two leads below. It is worth seeking out. The late 1980s and early 1990s Concord Jazz albums are really well recorded, and typically musicall they are simply a lot of fun.

Who do we get on this album? Well, you get the “typical” Ray Brown trio of this time, with Jeff Hamilton on drums and Gene Harris on the piano. This is probably the trio that get’s closest in fun and energy to the original Oscar Peterson trio with Brown, and Ed Thigpen on drums.

Some words about my favorite songs: Classical in G reminds me in a way of You Look Good To Me from Peterson’s classic We Get Requests, given that it also starts and ends with a Brown playing the bass with a bow. Paradise is slower but extremely groovy.

But my real favorite is probably Gumbo Hump, as the mix of Harris, Hamilton and Brown here really is just fantastic.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Amazon) and here (Spotify)

Michael Wollny Klangspuren (Live in Hamburg) – A Review

How did I miss this?

There is a live Wollny trio album out there and I only find out about it a year later. How is this possible? My bad.

Especially after I’ve attended his concert in Basel just some weeks after this album was released (see my concert review here).

But well, better late than never.

Michael Wollny Trio In Concert: Klangspuren – Live in Hamburg (ACT 2016)

I’m a big Wollny fan (thanks to an old friend from highschool who initially introduced me to him). See for example my reviews of his album Nachtfahrten, or my mention of one of his previous live albums in my 9 Outstanding Live Jazz albums. His album Weltentraum was also mentioned in my 25 Essential Jazz albums.

Michael Wollny Trio In Concert Klangspuren Live in Hamburg ACT 2016

 

 

 

This album is very close in spirit (and material) to the live concert I saw at Kaserne Basel in 2016. Given that it is to a large extend based on his Nocturne-style album Nachtfahrten, it has a lot of long, quiet, but intense passages. My favorite song is White Moon.

Wollny plays with his usual trio of Christian Weber and Eric Schaefer.

But don’t worry, the lion Wollny is occasionally let out of his cage for one of his more improvising elements.

Looking back at his recent studio albums, I rated Weltentraum a full 5 star, while Nachtfahrten was still nice, but only received a 4 star rating.

When we get to live albums, I´d suggest you get one of the Weltentraum live albums first, but this album is still very much worth having.

Wollny remains one of the most important Jazz pianists of our days.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here.

FYI, If you prefer to buy it as a physical album you also get a collectors edition that includes a DVD.

A Truly Moving Performance of Brahms Requiem by Yannick-Nezet Séguin and the Berlin Philharmonic: My Review

Serendipity

Who would have thought that I end up back at the Berlin Philharmonie so soon after the last concert by Simon Rattle just some days ago? Certainly not me.

This was really pure coincidence. I happened to stroll by the Berlin Philharmonic hall purely by chance. Suddenly, a guy approaches me, and asks “Would you want a ticket for the concert? Brahms, right now?” Well, who can say no to that? So 5 min later I find myself sitting in the Berlin Philharmonic hall watching as the BPO and the Rundfunkchor Berlin reassemble (I only got there during the break).

Ein Deutsches Requiem

I haven’t written that much about requiems yet on my blog. I have a certain respect for this category of music, as I always remember it is written for a very serious occasion, the death of a loved one. Maybe because of this I don’t listen to requiems enough.

I’ve previously mentioned Mozart´s requiem on my blog as part of My Must-have Mozart Albums. The other requiems I really love are Fauré’s (this really would need its own blog post), and obviously Brahms’.

Brahms German Requiem is a particular in many ways. First of all, it was written under very personal circumstances, around the death of Brahms own mother. Second, given Brahms´protestant background (he’s from Hamburg), he doesn’t use the traditional latin text of the catholic requiem, but instead parts of the Bible that are of personal importance to him. These are sung in German, hence the name.

Yannick Nézet Séguin – Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – Rundfunkchor Berlin – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller – Markus Werba

I was indeed very lucky last night. Not only I get to see again the BPO, one of the best orchestras in the world, but also finally get to see Yannick Nézet-Séguin live.

I’ve written a lot about his recordings, from his Cosi Fan Tutte to his FigaroMost recently I did a more ambivalent review of his Mendelssohn symphony box. But taken together, he is one of the most relevant conductors of the 21st century.

Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Brahms German Requiem Oct 19, 2017
Yannick Nézet-Séguinm, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Rundfunkchor Berlin

Given his previous recordings, I expected this concert to be a relatively fast and lean performance. Well, from the first measure I was proven wrong. This was BPO beauty in full blast, with relatively slow tempo throughout.

Actually, I’m glad he did. Given the nature of this work, the grandiose and emotionally charged way Nézet-Séguin conducted this just worked out perfectly.

A word about the soloists: they don’t really have such an important role in this work (maybe with the exception of the central soprano solo Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit), and overall the soloists did an good job, but were not the most memorable parts of the evening. The audience seems to think the same: they got decent applause, but nothing out of the the ordinary.

The true star of the evening was the Rundfunkchor Berlin, under Gijs Leenaars.  Their performance was just amazing. Not surprisingly, they received standing ovations at the end. Well deserved

Yannick Nezet Seguin Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem Oct 19 2017
The BPO hall organ was a major player in the performance

 

The highlight of the evening for me was the second movement, Und alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.  The combined power of the BPO, the powerful BPO hall organ, and the 80+ voices power (but also nuances) of the choir made this a performance I will never forget.

Truly outstanding.

My rating: 5 star

P.S. If you want to see it yourself, and are not in Berlin (note that there are some tickets left for tonight Oct 20 and tomorrow Oct 21), you can also see the Saturday performance streamed live in the Digital Concert Hall.

 

The Cunning Little Vixen – Janáček´s enchanting opera with Rattle´s Berlin Philharmonic

Leoš Janáček

In spite of the fact that I don’t write about them very often, I do very much like Czech composers. I just checked: so far two entries on Dvorak (none of them dedicated to him), another short mention of Martinu as part of a concert review. No entries for Smetana, same for Janacek.

Why is that? I really don’t know. Janacek in a way really flew under my radar screen. I had a couple of his string quartets which I liked, but not much beyond this.

So how do I end up seeing an opera he wrote?

Very simply: I was in Berlin, hadn’t been to see the Berlin Philharmonic for a while, and was able to spontaneously secure last minute tickets. Typically, the BPO with Rattle is booked out, prohibiting spontaneous trips to the amazing Sharoun concert hall.

Luckily, like me, the Berlin audience wasn’t familiar with this opera (original title: Příhody lišky Bystroušky) by Janacek at all.

I’m very glad I went, it was a fantastic evening.

The Cunning Little Vixen – Simon Rattle – Berlin Philharmonic – October 12, 2017

To be fair, my curiosity was helped by the fact that there were some amazing lead singers, with Gerald Finley and Lucy Crowe in the main roles, of Forester and Vixen respectively.

Furthermore, the always interesting Peter Sellars was responsible for the staging of the play, which was performaned not at one of Berlin many opera houses, but instead the traditional Berlin Philharmonic concert hall.

The opera itself has been only very rarely performed, you will find only a handful of recordings on your regular streaming service.

I hope this new performance will make it onto a formal recording, but I´ll make sure to check out the Digital Concert Hall of the Berlin philharmonic, where I hope this recording appears soon.

 

Berlin Philharmonic - Simon Rattle - Janacek - Cunning Little Vixen
Rattle during the opening of Janacek´s Cunning Little Vixen

 

The Berlin philharmonic and Rattle really shined, this outstanding music, that changes from sentimental to funny to very introvert by the minute.

The story (sung in Czech, but translated in real time on the displays) is full of double double-entendres and little nuances, and really goes beyond the animal fairy tale nature one could immediately expect looking at the title.

 

IMG_5484
Gerald Finley, Lucy Crowe, and Paulina Malefane

 

As mentioned above, Finley and Crowe were outstanding soloists, but the remaining cast was also very good, only some of the choirs and children roles were not fully up to the same standards, but this didn’t hurt the overall impact.

Peter Sellars didn’t have a lot to work with, there was basically one small stage with only the occasional table and chairs added, and large LCD screens with videos to illustrate the scenery (from a creek in the woods to moving images of chicken).

Sellars also used the entire space, with the chorus occasional singing from above you, and with some of the lead singers freely roaming the entire building.

 

Petter Sellars staging of the Cunning Little Vixen, Berlin Philharmonic
Peter Sllars creative use of space: note the choir on the upper balcony

 

The Berlin public in the nearly sold out hall was as enchanted and enthusiastic as I was, we got more than 10 minutes of standing ovations and cheering.

 

Berlin Philharmonic, Cunning Little Vixen, Janacek, Rattle
An enthusiastic Berlin audience after the performance

A truly memorable evening.

My rating: 5 stars

Tartini and Verancini: New Types of Pasta? A Review of Rachel Podger’s Grandissima Gravita

Rachel Podger

After my so-so review of Adam Baldych’ recent Jazz album, where I declared I didn’t really like the sounds of the instrument, one of my readers asked me whether I like the sound of Baroque violin.

Let me put one thing clear: Very much so indeed! And when we get to baroque violin, there are few better players out there than Rachel Podger. I’m a big fan of her.

I’ve previously praised her Biber Rosary sonatas, that deservedly so won a Gramophone award in her category in 2016, and I also love her ventures beyond baroque, for example her outstanding Mozart violin sonatas (see my review here), which also made it into my Must Have Mozart albums.

(I haven’t written about it yet, but her Bach concertos, especially the album on double and triple concertos, is also outstanding).

So you can see a theme emerging up there, with a special focus on violin sonatas with small ensembles.

So, not surprisingly, I was very tempted when I saw her latest album come out.

 

Grandissima Gravita – Rachel Podger – Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics 2017)

 

Grandissima Gravita Pisendel Tartini Veracini Vivaldi Rachel Podger Brecon Baroque Channel Classics 24/96

 

What’s the downside? You get several Italian baroque composer that are really not that well known, from Giuseppe Tartini, to Francesco Maria Veracini, to the only non-Italian in the group, Johann Georg Pisendel, a German but who during a trip to Italy became friends with the only well-known composer of this album, Antonio Vivaldi.

So what do we get from these relatively little known Vivaldi contemporaries? Well, musically, this is not a must have. Already Vivaldi is not my favorite cup of tea among the baroque composers, and his contemporaries are usually even less interesting to me.

But after the first stream, I went ahead and bought the album immediately?

Why is this, will you ask after my somewhat negative intro?

Well, it is simply because Podger, with her small ensemble, Brecon Baroque, plays with so much passion and energy that you simply cannot help to be drawn into the music.

I keep playing it over and over again. I really don’t think you could play this any better.

Add on top the outstanding recording quality of Channel Classics, and you have an album that you really should be checking out!

My rating: 4 stars (5+ star playing, down-graded due to the interest of the repertoire)

You can find it here (Native DSD) and here (Qobuz)

Yes, Cecile McLorin Salvant could well be the leading Jazz singer of the 21st century: A Review of Dreams and Daggers

Cecile McLorin Salvant

I’ve written several times about Cecile McLorin Salvant already, about her amazing album For The One To Love, which also featured in my Top 5 Vocal Jazz albums for 2015. I also already had the pleasure of hearing her live, an outstanding experience.

This young singer has already received so much praise, including a Grammy and a DownBeats critics poll, that I’m hardly presenting you a scoop here, but a new album by such a great artist really needs a blog post!

Dreams and Daggers (MackAvenue 2017)

Cecile McLorin Salvant Dreams and Daggers 24 96 MackAvenue 2017

A couple of initial comments: this is a live album, recorded in 2016 at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York that has given us outstanding live albums already back in the days of Bill Evans. And the recording quality is excellent, you really only notice the live character of this album from the audience´s enthusiastic clapping and her occasional comments to the public.

Second comment: you get a double album here. Some could argue, is this a bit long? Actually not at all, you actually really don’t want this album to end.

Third comment: this album is formally slightly less innovative than the first two ones, you get more Irving and Gershwin standards, and the playing by Aaron Diehl and his great musicians is relatively mainstream. Some of you will take that as a criticism. Actually, not at all!

Because McLorin Salvant manages to put her very personal spin on even old try familiar standards like Devil May Care or You’re My Thrill.

My favorite track is Somehow I never could believe, which starts out as a sensitive ballad where Aaron Diehl already gets to shine in the long intro, but the real hero is Paul Sikivie on bass. And then you get Cecile´s voice, which on this track sometimes is even close to whispering. Amazingly intense.

A note on the title: You have Dreams, representing pretty much what you’d think it means. But what about the Daggers? Well, according to McLorin Salvant, this is about the songs about more complex topics, like feminism, racial identity, self-doubt, that really force you to listen to the lyrics.

This album is a must have for any jazz lover. The year is not yet over, but I´d be surprised if this album doesn’t end up in my personal top Jazz albums for 2017.

In my very first post about her I asked the question in the title Will Cécile McLorin Salvant Become The Most Important Jazz Singer of Our Century?.

Well we obviously still have 83 years to go in this decade, but she’s clearly up to a very good start here.

My rating: 5 stars

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