Debussy’s Images – Impressionism For Your Ears

20th century music

Let me first of all do a quick detour here: You won’t find a lot of 20th century classical music on my blog. It is very simple, the further we go away from tonality, the less I like it.

So the territory of the impressionism of a Ravel or Debussy are still borderline, some Prokofiev is as well, but I rarely really enjoy Shostakovich, and don’t even get me started on true twelve-tone and other stuff. I just don’t get it.

As I know some smart people who really adore Schönberg, Webern, Boulez et al. I’ve often wondered why I have this barrier. You see, the visual arts took a similar turn from concrete motives to abstract concepts, and I actually like a 1950 Picasso usually significantly more to a Turner, or any 18th century art. I really appreciate Jason Pollock and Sam Francis (especially the latter). So here I am much more open-minded (OK, when it gets to Duchamp’s Fountain or most of Joseph Boys, I’m out, but at least I get (or believe so) intellectually what they are trying to get at).

But atonal music (and sorry, while some will say there is no atonal music, I think most readers here will get the concept). is something I just don’t get. Probably my brain is to small or too hard-wired in the well-tempered scale to go there.

Claude Debussy’s Images

Back to the early 20th century, and more specifically Debussy. Why write about this right now? Well, I think I’ve mentioned before the excellent Swiss radio show “Diskothek Im 2“, that gets two experts in the studio and compares 5 different version of a given classical work, and this fully blindly.

A very interesting exercise which I should do even more often at home (you’ll be surprised how much your most beloved conducted can disappoint when you don’t know it’s him, or vice versa).

So, a recent show compared 5 recordings of Debussy’s Image. These 6 little poems, with beautiful names like Reflets dans l’eau (reflections on the water), or Poissons d’or (goldfish) are probably among the best known examples of what we call today impressionism, similar to the earlier period in the visual arts (Debussy apparently didn’t like the term by the way).

The editor chose 5 contemporary recordings, and so the classical reference version of these, by the amazing Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli on DG in 1971 was out. By the way, I’m just re-listening to this version right now and it is outstanding, so don’t hesitate to get it in spite of its age.

The versions reviewed included Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alain Planès on a 1902 Blüthner piano (very interesting to discover by the way), Marc-André Hamelin, and the “winner” of this little contest, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Complete Debussy vol. 4 – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet Debussy vol. 4 Images Chandos

And here I must admit, while I had heard his name before, I didn’t have a single Bavouzet recording in my collection. Something to be corrected ASAP, as while I don’t always agree with the invited experts, in this case, recording number 4 clearly stood out (in spite of no recording of the 5 being a negative outlier, all had their qualities). I suppose it’s the mixture between extreme precision and the ability to just get sucked into the music.

Have you ever sat in the small west-end Musée Marmottan in Paris? It doesn’t draw the gazillions of visitors that the Musée d’Orsay gets, but it actually has an exceptional Monet collection. There are two main reasons to got there. A, there is an entire corner where you sit surrounded by Monet’s water lilies. Believe me, they are better than the original in Giverny. And there is one, rather little painting, depicting a rising sun over foggy harbor waters, with some small boats passing by, called Impression, Soleil Levant. And yes, this is what gave Impressionism its name.

Sorry for the detour, but watching this particular painting, and listening to Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut played by Bavouzet gives about the same feeling, that is somewhere out of this world.

This is actually album number 4 of Bavouzet recording Debussy’s complete works, I assume all other volumes are equally worth having, but I didn’t yet have time to check them out.

My rating: 5 stars

You can get it here directly from the label.

Isabelle Faust and Brahms’ Violin Concerto – Just Magical

My blog’s subtitle has Brahms in it, and I haven’t even mentioned good old Johannes for a while.So let me correct this by writing about his violin concerto, and my favorite versions.

Brahms’ Violin Concerto

Brahms was a pianist, not a violinist, and so he needed an expert on what to do and not to do. Luckily, one of his best friends, Joseph Joachim, was one of the leading violinists of his time, so he consulted extensively with him while writing this piece in 1878.

Obviously, this concerto has been recorded over and over again, so there are a lot of amazing versions to choose from. However, there is a relatively recent 2011 recording which I really love more than most others.

Isabelle Faust

Isabelle Faust Brahms Violin Concerto Daniel Harding Mahler Chamber Orchestra Harmonia Mundi 2011

There are so many outstanding young violin players these days, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Hillary Hahn, etc. etc. etc. We are really spoilt these days. However, Isabelle Faust is in a way my personal favorite, probably because she does a lot of excellent chamber music as well (more about that later).

This recording of the violin concerto with the excellent Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding, a young rising star in the conductor scene, has not received praise across the board. Some even called her tone “thin”. Well, I agree her way of playing is always rather on the light than the heavy side, but to me it feels just right. Faust writes in the excellent liner notes that she has studied Joseph Joachim extensively, both his personality, but also historic sources about his playing style. Overall, Faust plays historically informed, but unlike in some other cases this doesn’t mean no vibrato at all, but just a more selective use of it.

The smaller size of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra matches her transparency very well, this is a match made in heaven. As a side note, these days younger orchestras like the MCO or the Chamber Orchestra of Europe are becoming more and more serious competition to the established big boys in Berlin/Vienna/London. I suppose we music lovers we can only be happy about this, as it hopefully keeps everybody on their toes.

A curiosity about this version is the use of the unusual Busoni cadenza, so if you are familiar with this work you’re in for a little surprise.

String Sextet No. 2

As mentioned before, Faust is an excellent chamber musician as well (her Beethoven sonatas are my absolute favorite). So as a “filler” we get the beautiful String Sextet No. 2, which is well worth listening to. A sextet is a more rarely heard form of chamber music, but for Brahms these were actually his first venture into pure string chamber music, and successful in the way that helped further build his name as a composer.

A little piece of trivia: Brahms fell in love many times during his life, but remained a bachelor nevertheless. Occasionally, we get glimpses into his love life from his music, like in the case of the Alto Rhapsody (see my earlier post here). In this case, he was in love with Agathe von Siebold, and nicely enough, you’ll get the motive “A-G-A-H-E” (H being the key for B in German notation) as a leitmotif several times in the first movement.

Overall rating: 5 stars. This, as usual is a very personal judgment. If you agree with me, please comment, if you don’t, I’d love to hear why!

And if you want a more traditional Brahms, you can always go to Oistrakh/Klemperer and Heifetz/Reiner, both outstanding in their own way.

You can get it here as download and here as physical album.

Claire-Marie Le Guay’s Gentle and Perceptive Bach

Bach again, really? I am reviewing too much Bach. But then again, can anybody have too much Bach? Probably not. To be fair, it took me a while to really appreciate Bach. In my youth, I barely listened to him, and my handful of experiences playing him myself made matters worse (I was never a good piano student, to lazy to practice). I assume the beauty and clarify of Bach is something that really needs to grow on you over time. In my thirties (I’m now in my forties) i started realizing that I started to listen more and more to Baroque music, and particularly Bach. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it just happened naturally. And today I literally just can’t get enough (ha, do you have Depeche Mode playing in your head now as well? I do every time I write this phrase in English).

Claire-Marie Le Guay

I must admit I hadn’t noticed her before this “Choc” by Classica some months ago, released on Mirare in 2015. But then I saw her teachers included Alicia de Larrocha and Andreas Staier, I got curious. She has won several competitions and has notably quite busy doing chamber music.

Her Bach album

Claire-Marie Le Guay - Bach Mirare 2015

As usual, when a French magazine reviews a French artist and sells him or her as “the best thing since sliced bread”, I usually take it with a grain of salt. But when I checked out this particular album, I just had to get it pretty much immediately. And this in spite of me being more and more skeptical about Bach on a modern Steinway. What sets this album apart is her touch. Delicate, almost caressing. Bach can be quite tough sometimes, or mechanical, if played by the wrong musician. None of this is here. And in spite of all this gentleness, the music is fully there. You don’t miss any single counterpoint turn in the beautiful Italian Concerto, and even the Chromatic Fantasia BWV903, which sometimes can be a bit academic, is just drawing you in.

Overall rating: 4 stars (I hesitated a long time whether I should give 5 stars, but somehow my subconscious tells me only harpsichord Bach should get the best possible rating, which is probably bullshit)

You can get it here as CD and here as download

Nina Revisited… or I’d Never Have Thought I’d Ever Mention Usher On This Blog

Hommage albums are all the rage. After the brilliant Autour de Nina (reviewed here), I was nevertheless kind of curious about the new album Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone.

0886445281262_600

Well, obviously when I saw that artists like Usher participated (who really represents to me everything that is wrong about today’s top 40 radio “soul”), I kind of assumed I’d hate this album, so I declare openly in front of the jury my potential bias.

But then I figured, what the heck, so far every single album review I’ve done was four or five stars, so I finally felt obliged to also show to you what it is I actually don’t like.

Nina Revisited….

This album is a very good example.

Usher’s version of My Baby Just Cares For Me is massacring this song, which to be fair, was never particularly good in the first place (the producers forced Nina Simone at the time to add it as they felt there were too many ballads on her debut album Little Girl Blue), but at least it can be pleasing and swinging. It is nothing like that here, just brainless drum-computer-plus-overproduced-synthesizers elevator music.

Nina Simone Little Girl Blue 1958 Bethlehem

So why bother mentioning this album at all on my blog? Why waste my energy? Well, because there are actually a handful of tracks on this album that are quite enjoyable.

First of all, Ms. Lauryn Hill does a really good job on Feeling Good; this could even become my favorite version of this feel-good (sorry for the pun) song, and Wild in the Wind is also pretty well done. She shouldn’t have done Ne me quitte pas, but then again, Nina shouldn’t have done either. If you don’t know it, please do yourself the favor and check out Jacques Brel’s original. Once you’ve heard this, you’d wish nobody ever bothered to cover this song with a horrible English accent in the first place.

Alice Smith’s version of I put a spell on you is actually quite interesting, although far from Sophie Hunger’s brilliant version on Autour de NinaGregory Porter’s version of Sinnerman is at least as enjoyable as Keziah Jones. And finally, Lisa Simone’s I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl is decent background music.

Overall rating: barely 3 starsEDIT: Nah, the couple of decent tracks on here doesn’t make up for the unbearable garbage of some others: 2 stars. 

Do yourself a favor and only buy individual tracks here!

Music That Gives My Readers Goose Bumps – part I

My rather spontaneous post about  my top 10 music that gives me goose bumps inspired by Cosi Fan Tutte turned out to be my most successful post by far.

I’ve received a lot of feedback on different social media sites and fora, it would be too much of a pity not to share this, as there is excellent stuff in there I could have mentioned myself. Listed below in random order. I’ll quote the source’s avatar name in brackets, and my little personal comment (if any) right next to it.

To make these posts manageable I’ll only list 10 per post. Again, source are all publicly available Youtube links.

Expect more to come.

By the way, I’d really appreciate hearing more from you, this has been extremely fun so far!

Mozart: Piano Concerto no. 21 – Andante (GuidoF) – oh yes absolutely, this piece I’ve even added to the soundtrack of my own wedding video.

Bach’s b-minor mass (GuidoF) – sure, I’ve already posted about it here.

Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oie (SonnetCLV) – Ravel really has extremely touching moments

Berg: Lulu’s death (Albert7) – I’m not a Berg fan across the board, but this is beautiful

Verdi: Don Carlo – Et giammai m’amo (GuidoF) – among my favorite Verdi operas as well

Vivaldi: Gloria RV589 (accwai) – Yes yes yes, can’t be bothered with most of Vivaldi, but this one is great!

Scarlatti: Sonata K213 (accwai) – In a recent twitter conversation with Jens F. Laurson (@classicalcritic) he seemed shocked by my somehow dismissive comment here about Scarlatti leaving me cold. Well, he has a point, and I’ve since changed my mind. This is another case in point.

Bantock: Celtic Symphony (Metairie Road) – have to admit had never heard this before, but beautiful

Brahms: Alto Rhapsody (Andolink) – I doubt Andolink has read my blog post about it, but he recommended exactly the same Herreweghe recording – nice.

http://www.talkclassical.com/38978-music-gives-me-goose.html?highlight=goose

Bach: Largo from the Double Concerto BWV1043 – oh yeah, this needs a future blog post.

That’s all for today, as said before, more to come! And please, give me more!

Edgar Knecht – Dance On Deep Waters – Transforming  Traditional Songs into Jazz

To me, Jazz Piano Trio is just an outstanding art form, as already discussed on my previous post on Keith Jarrett’s’ Standards vol. 2.

Actually, Standards fits nicely into a number of trios/albums that have shaped and influenced this particular art form. You could start this lineage with Bill Evans first trio, then move on to Keith Jarrett’s Standards trio, and somehow the third level of evolution came with the late Esbjörn Svensson and his trio. He clearly innovated the trio on many fronts.

Many of today’s piano trios would be unthinkable without EST. And we are very lucky that this art form is not only still alive, but thriving.

About 18 month ago I started a thread on another forum on that topic, called “Are we living in the Golden Age of the Jazz Piano trio?“. This thread has now answered the question I was asking with more than 300 posts today and has become an amazing (if unsorted) list documenting how much is happening around us right now!

Edgar Knecht

I want to start writing about some of the artists I mentioned or discovered on this thread. Let me kick this off with my most recent purchase, the 2013 album Dance On Deep Waters from the German Edgar Knecht, on Ozella Music. I actually start with a tricky example, this trio is actually a quartet as it includes a percussionist. But well, it is close enough.

Edgar Knecht Dance On Deep Waters Ozella Music 2013

As you can see from the thread, I was actually introduced to this artists (and many other discoveries) by the forum member Elvergunn, who seems to be even more obsessed than me in finding new artists.

(Little side note: The internet is really such a great place for music, you can exchange with music lovers in the entire world, you find stuff that you would have never found in your local record store, and you can all download it in minutes to your computer thanks to the rapidly multiplying specialized online shops, but let’s close the parenthesis here).

Edgar Knecht in my mind is all about melodies and creating a very particular atmosphere. He takes simple music, from German folk songs to even Brahms famous Lullaby “Wiegenlied” and transforms it into something very special. The only little issue I have with this album is that sometimes you’d like a little bit more diversity in terms of approach and style. But I suppose you can’t have it all.

That said, I find this album very enjoyable and keep going back to it quite regularly right now.
My rating: 4 stars

You can get it here as download and here as  CD.