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)

Well, I Actually DO Like Scarlatti – A Review of Jean Rondeau’s Latest Recording

Domenico Scarlatti

I had written previously some time ago that I don’t particularly like Scarlatti. Or to be more precise, to quote myself “I’ve never heard any Scarlatti that has touched me”.

I got quite a lot of readers comments on this, recommending some very good recordings of Scarlatti. And while there were some that I found somewhat interesting (e.g. Pletnev), I still really hadn’t found my way into the universe of Scarlatti.

I’m pleased to report I’ve finally found the first Scarlatti album I go back to on a regular basis.

Scarlatti: Sonatas – Jean Rondeau (Erato 2018)

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

I’ve mentioned Rondeau’s very good Bach album here; I really like this young French harpsichord player.

So I was naturally curious about his take on Scarlatti? Would it finally be for me?

Well, I’ve given it away above, the answer is a clear yes.

To be fair, an important factor is the very beautiful sound of the harpsichord Rondeau is playing, apparently a quite recent construction built in 2006 after historic German models by Jonte Knif and Arno Pelto just has a fantastic roundness, and none of the sometimes annoying characteristics of the harpsichord that can be annoying for longer listening sessions.

Rondeau,  winner of the first prize at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, plays these with a power, energy, and conviction that is just blowing me away. Some other Scarlatti recordings sometimes can have that “typewriter” playing, none of that here.

I’m curious to hear what the Scarlatti experts, which I’m clearly not, will be saying about this new album.

In the meantime, I can strongly recommend you check it out!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

Igor Levit – Life – A Beautiful Treasure

Does Gramophone read my blog?

I presume not, but it’s a nice coincidence that just a short time after I write a dedicated blog post about the piano transcriptions of Bach’s Chaconne, Gramophone releases a complete review of all historic recordings of Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne. That’s great news for me as well, as there a lot of versions I haven’t checked out yet.

One very new one is also not yet mentioned in this review article, which brings us to this album.

Igor Levit – Life (Sony Classical 2016)

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If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a huge Levit fan. Not only I’ve praised his Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski album, but to me he is clearly one of my favorite pianists of all times.

He has a very particular style. There is a certain perfectionism (his outstanding technique clearly helps), but it is never going towards the mechanical perfection of some virtuosos, the perfectionism, particularly about timing, is always serving the music.

Levit doesn’t tend to be a virtuoso in general, he could easily be with his mastering of the piano, but he really never shows off. In many way, it is a very introvert way of playing which makes it even more interesting.

This album in many ways shows an even more intimate side of Levit. It is a very personal selection of music, from Busoni, via Schumann, to Rzewski and even Bill Evans. The common thread of the album can be found in the title, “Life”, as this album was strongly influenced by the death of a close friend of Levit.

The album starts with two transcriptions by Busoni of Bach originals. The Chaconne is a very good example of the intimate style I described above, in many ways it is the complete opposite of the somewhat overwhelming fireworks in fascinating recording of the same work by the young Benjamin Grosvenor.

We continue with a rarely played variations work by Schumann, which makes me really hope that Levit will record more of his work. I’d love to hear his take on the Davidsbündlertänze or the Kreisleriana.

Another highlight of this album are the two Wagner transcriptions, from Parsifal and Tristan. I must admit not being a great fan of Wagner in general (this is actually the first time this composer even appears on this blog), but he clearly has written some great harmonies.

The album wraps up with one of my favorite compositions of Bill Evans, the simple Peace Piece from the 1958 album Everybody Digs Bill Evans. 

There really couldn’t be a better ending to this very particular, personal album than this solemn, simple, but breathtakingly beautiful interpretation.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) and here (Acoustic Sounds)

 

A Review of a VERY BIG Rach2 by Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin – Stunning

Daniil Trifonov and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I’m a big fan of both artists (e.g. see here for my review their previous Rachmaninov album, or here for a report my recent experience of Nézet-Séguin live, or just use the search function).

Trifonov is without doubt one of the best pianists of our age, and I start to regret not having included him in my list of my Top 10 classical pianists, maybe that blog post needs an update at some point. And Nézet-Séguin is on his path to be one of the truly great conductors of the 21st century.

So when I saw they just released the legendary Rach 2 together, I bought the album immediately.

Destination Rachmaninov: Departure. Piano concertos No. 2 & 4 – Daniil Trifonov – Yannick Nézet-Séguin – The Philadelphia Orchestra

 

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

There is no lack of great recordings of Rach2. Andsnes, Zimerman, Buniatishvili (although this recording is bit controversial), not to mention the greats like Richter, or even the composer himself.

How to play this piece? Do you try to keep it more factual, or do you go with the full romantic power of the piece?

Some lessons can be taken from the recording of Rachmaninov with Leopold Stokowski, featuring the very same Philadelphia Orchestra than the current recording. And one thing is clear, already at the time (1924), they went BIG. A lot of power, a lot of rubato, a lot of everything. And guess what, that works! (well the composer should know, you’d presume)

Trifonov and Nézet-Séguin take a very big approach here. You can really float in the big sound of the Philharmonia Orchestra, and soloist and conductor clearly connect. Trifonov clearly is a virtuoso of the highest caliber, so the technical challenges of this massive work just go unnoticed.

Overall, there is a lot of rubato, and the tempo is relatively slow. In some of the slower passages, one even gets reminder of a Bruckner symphony.

Some would argue this is too much. I haven’t seen many reviews yet, but I predict this recording will be a love it or hate it affair.

To make it clear: I love it!

You also get concerto no. 4, but to this day, I’m like quite a large majority of music lovers, I love nos. 2 and 3, and just don’t get 4. So no comment from my side.

What you do get on top is much more interesting, at least to me. Rachmaninov did his transcription of the Violin Partita BWV 1006, a true gem, that I should probably add to my blog post on transcriptions of the Chaconne. Very much worth discovering.

I’m kind of curious about the album title, Departure, and am really wondering where this train takes us next. Let’s hope to an equally spectacular Rach 3!

My rating: 5 stars.

I’m curious to see if my prediction holds true, and there will be both raving and bad reviews of this. I’ll report back when I see them. In the meantime, try before you buy!

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

 

UPDATE Oct 30: Well, my prediction of this being a very controversial album already holds true. Check out the comments of my readers below, and you’ll find both love and hate.

In terms of professional reviews, we generally are very positive so far, with four stars from Richard Fairman in the FT, five stars by Andrew Clements in the Guardian, another five stars by Normal Lebrecht. I’m still curious what Gramophone and Classica will think of this.

In any case, try before you buy!

 

Tord Gustavsen’s The Other Side – Delightful

Tord Gustavsen

I’ve previously written about the rich Jazz scene in Scandinavia, and particularly about Tord Gustavsen, reviewing his album The Ground here.

Gustavsen’s trio has a very particular style, minimal, melodic, and fascinating.

So I was very excited when I saw that Gustavsen’s latest album was just released, and thanks to ECM finally allowing streaming, I could sample it immediately.

Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side (ECM 2018)

Tord Gustavsen Trio: The Other Side (24/96) ECM 2018

I wasn’t a universal  fan of some of the albums Gustavsen released in the last years, but with his latest album, I’m fully back on board!

The first thing you notice is the cover art, while still in the typical ECM abstract art style, they’ve changed from the dark blue tones of most of the former albums to a bright orange. Does this mean the music is more orange as well?

Well, actually not. This is very typical Gustavsen style, very much reminding me of what I liked so much about The Ground.  Let’s take as an example urack 3 of the album, Re-Melt. It starts with a syncopated rhythm by Jarle Vespestad on drums, and Sigurd Hole on bass. Gustavsen joins a bit later, weaving a beautiful, subdued melody over the rhythm. None of the music on this album is ever over the top, but it will always be one thing: very atmospheric. It always just unfolds slowly, over time.

Recording quality, as usual on ECM, is very good, actually in this particular case it is again quite spectacular.

Check out this album. It may not be for everyone, but if you like this minimalist Nordics style, you really should not hold back!

My rating: 4 stars

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

 

Sophie Pacini – In Between – Truly Passionate Romantic Piano

Schumann and Mendelssohn

I must admit, the core of my listening when I was younger was the Romantic period.

Brahms really was my first love, but also Bruckner, Schumann, and later increasingly Mendelssohn.

I have written previously about Mendelssohn’s solo piano works, e.g. the beautiful recordings of the Lieder ohne Worte (Song without Words) by Ronald Brautigam here and Xavier Perianes here.

But I’ve been a bit too silent about Schumann’s beautiful piano works. I was just recently reminded of Schumann’s tragic life when I saw a re-run of the 2008 German TV production Beloved Clara (Geliebte Clara) that is set in the last years of Schumann’s life when Brahms suddenly shows up, and witnesses Schumann’s increasing mental degradation. The movie isn’t the best ever, but the true story is really fascinating. And actress Martina Gedeck as Clara is good as ever.

So when I quite recently discovered a new release of a young Italian pianist, that of all possible mentors was endorsed and encouraged by none other than the magnificent Martha Argerich, I was curious.

Sophie Pacini – In Between (Warner Classics 2018)

Sophie Pacini is 26 years old, but has already had a quite impressive career, and winning several prices. Somehow she wasn’t yet on my radar screen yet. What a miss. She’s a truly passionate pianist.

Sophie Pacini In Between Schumann & Mendelssohn Warner Classics 2018 24/96 review

This entire album is split between Schumann and Mendelssohn. We really get the full level of energy throughout, I’m really not suprised that Matha endorses her, in many way she reminds me of her.

My favorite piece is already the starting piece. Here we’re getting the Liszt translation of the beautiful love song Widmung. 

This piece really is already fully putting you into the mood, virtuosity, energy, but also a lot of nuance.

When in the second half we get to Mendelssohn, we see that Pacini also is very powerful in the less virtuoso passages, she plays e.g. the beautiful Lieder ohne Worte with a lot of intimacy.

The only thing you could criticize on this album, if you really wanted to, is the occasional moment of “power over precision”, and a lot of use of rubato. But this really is nitpicking.

 

Sophie Pacini is a promising artist to watch (well, don’t believe me, but Martha apparently after initially hearing her play called her Veramente Bravisssima), and I can recommend this album very highly.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz) or here (HDtracks)

 

Haydn’s Piano Sonatas by Paul Lewis – Delightful

Papa Haydn

I’ve written several times before about Haydn, mainly about his symphonies, e.g. here (Ottavio Dantone) and here (Giovanni Antonini).

Overall, I’m not such a big fan of this composer. He had a very important role in music history, but I’d much rather listen to Mozart than to Haydn most of the time.

However, exceptions confirm the rule. For example, this excellent album by Paul Lewis:

Haydn: Piano Sonatas 32, 40, 49, 50 – Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Haydn Piano Sonatas Nr. 32 40 49 50 Paul Lewis Harmonia Mundi 2018 24 96

Paul Lewis is one of the most famous pupils of the legendary Alfred Brendel. He’s already recorded quite a bit, and has often focused on a very similar repertoire to his master, e.g. Schubert and Beethoven (his complete Beethoven cycle is very nice).

You can hear a lot of his Schubert and Beethoven in this recording. The playing is always thoughtful, often energetic, but never too much, very nuanced, and overall extremely enjoyable. It is very clear that Lewis has learned a lot from Brendel, I’d use very similar adjectives for him.

What suprises me is that I keep going back to this album on a very regular basis, and in a way this is probably the one Haydn album I’ve listened to the most in my entire life of classical music listening.

Gramophone agrees and gives this an Editor’s Choice in their May 2018 issue (although they tend to be quite friendly to UK artists in general).

Overall, very much worth having.

My rating: 4 stars (5 star playing, 4 star repertoire)

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