Tag Archives: Bach

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.

 

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.

Why Bother Reading Reviews If There Is No Consensus? The Example Of Esfahani’s New Goldberg Variations?

Professional Music Reviews

I’ve been very clear on my blog here that whatever I’m writing is nothing more than my personal view on the music and interpretations I write about.

You’d think that it should be different for professional reviewers. OK, maybe nuances according to individual tastes, but a good album is a good one, and a bad one is bad, right?

Well, I’ve previously given already one example of a Mahler album that received extremly contrasting reviews from two of the most respected classical review magazines out there, UK-based Gramophone, and French Classica.

And here we go again:

Bach: Goldberg Variations – Mahan Esfahani (Deutsche Gramophon 2016)

Bach: Goldberg Variations - Mahan Esfahani (24/48) Deutsche Grammophon 2016

Mahan Esfahani is one of the rising stars on the harpsichord. I’ve briefly mentioned him in my musing’s on the Gramophone Awards 2015, but haven’t properly reviewed any of his albums yet.

I really liked his previous album Time Present And Time Past that went from Scarlatti to Reich.

So I was very curious about his take of the Goldberg Variations. I’ve previously praised Pierre Hantaï on harpsichord and Igor Levit on a modern piano. Both remain favorites of mine, but I have dozens alternatives.

Gramophone and Classica totally disagree

But before I get into my personal assessment, let me get back to my opening comment: How professional reviewers can disagree, in the most drastic possible way.

October Issue Gramophone: “His navigations of the music’s structure […] is carefully considered without sounding in the least bit studied, or different for the sake of being different. His Goldberg Variations clearly belongs […] in all serious Bach collections”. They even gave it a Gramophone Award.

October Issue Classica: “Il donne même l’impression de réinventer le Bach machine à coudre” (he even leaves the impression of reinventing the “sewing machine” Bach style), or “errements d’un jeu qui se laisse aller à un rubato et des manières agacants” (this is a bit harder to translate, but basically they find the same freedom that Gramophone likes above totally annoying), and speak of “La première version post baroque” (the first post-baroque version). Result: 2 out of 5 stars, which is their  way of saying “disappointing”.

So what is it? Does a disappointing album belong in all serious Bach collections? I don’t blame you for being confused.

But this is my point, right? You can never use any kind of review individually. You can try to find a magazine (or even better, individual reviewer) that has a similar taste to yours, but then need to make up your own mind.

Side note: This is why I love streaming so much, as you can simply try out new music as much as you want before buying. But please, don’t forget to buy stuff you really like, if you want the musician to make a living.

To close this chapter on reviews, what is helpful if you find “meta-reviews”, that compares and contrast several individual reviewers. If you find consensus among many reviewers, you probably have a higher chance of finding something truly exceptional. Classica every month does just that, unfortunately only comparing French reviewers, they call that table “Les Coups de Coeurs” and summarize the opinions of 6 different French classical music specialists from Le Figaro to France Musique. But I don’t think anybody does this at an international level.

So what do I think about this album?

Now it get’s difficult. Esfahani’s recording is clearly VERY different.

What I love about it is the sound of the harpsichord, a two keyboard reconstruction that has a splendid sound (and isn’t ruined to much by Deutsche Gramophones sound engineers).

About the version? You’d think this is a love or hate recording. Well actually, it isn’t. I’ve now listened to it at least 5 or 6 times, but it doesn’t touch me as much as a Goldberg recording should. I’m just a bit indifferent. I clearly see how this recording is different, and why Esfahani does what he does, but I don’t think this version will get a lot of additional spins on my system. I’d go to Hantaï, or Levit, or Perahia, or, or, or.

My rating: 3 stars

 

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

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part V): All The Rest

And All The Rest

After 4 parts on my favorite categories of the 2016 Gramophone Award nominations, I discovered that I simply don’t have enough to say about most albums in the other categories, so I decided to lump all remaining categories (Baroque Instrumental, Choral, Contemporary, Early Music, Opera, Orchestral, Recital, Solo Vocal) into one big “super-post” and only write about the albums I really care about in this remaining sections.

So, here we go:

Baroque Instrumental

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works (BIS 2016)

I must admit, I bought this album initially because I finally wanted to have a well recorded modern version of the Toccata d-minor BWV565, probably Bach’s best known work even for lay people.

Masaaki Suzuki plays Bach Organ Works BIS 2016 24/96

Well, that and the fact that I truly admire Masaaki’s efforts with the Bach Collegium Japan, and have pretty much his entire Cantata cycle. So I was curious to hear him as a soloist.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. BIS can usually be trusted for recording quality, and this recording delivers (although has quite a bit of reverb from the Marinikerk in Groninen, so if you don’t like this, look elsewhere).

The good thing of this album is as well that once you go beyond the Toccata earworm, there is lots of beautiful music to discover. I don’t listen to organ very regularly, so this album pushes me in the right direction.

And Masaaki surely knows how to play. This album has received some controversial reviews, some like Diapason and obviously Gramophone love it, some critisize Suzuki takes too many liberties. Well, I’m certainly in the first camp.

My rating: 4 stars

 

WF Bach Keyboard Concertos – Maude Gratton (Mirare 2015)

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach: Concertos pour Clavecin et Cordes / Cembalo Concerts Maude Gratton Il Convito

I’ve reviewed this album previously and unfortunately, it still isn’t my cup of tea.

 

Biber: Rosary Sonatas – Rachel Podger (Channel Classics 2016)

Ah, Rachel Podger. I’m a big fan, and like pretty much everything she recorded, see also here.

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Sometimes, even in the music world, there seem to be trends.

You barely heard about Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (to quote his full name) for years, and all over sudden, you get 3 recordings of the Rosary Sonatas in a row.

Not sure about the exact order, but we got Ariadne Daskalakis on BIS, Hélène Schmitt on Aeolus, and Rachel Podger in the space of about 12 months.

What’s even more difficult: all of the above are very good.

Nevertheless Podger has an edge over the two others in my ear due to the sheer beauty of the playing. Now, you could argue, is beauty the right approach for these works.

Well I’m not religious, but if Wikipedia is correct, the Mystery of the Rosaries are meditations on important moments in the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. I personally would want these to be beautiful. The outstanding recording quality of Channel Classics in DSD only makes it more breathtaking. 

My rating: 5 stars

In any case, check out the two others as well before buying.

My prediction

So who will win in the category? Both Suzuki and Podger have made it into the final three, I’d expect a tight race here. I personally give the edge to Podger.

Opera

I recently bought Netrebko’s beautiful recording of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta and enjoyed it a lot, so I really need to check out the recording of Pique Dame that Gramophone recommends here by Mariss Jansons, but I haven’t done so yet, so will refrain from any comment at this stage.

The only album in the opera category I’ve heard (and own) is:

Verdi: Aidi – Antonio Pappano – Anja Harteros – Jonas Kaufmann (Warner 2015)

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

Well, no change to my previous five star rating (see the review here), and I wouldn’t be surprised if this album will also win. Like the Tchaikovsky mentioned above, it made it into the final three candidates.

Orchestral

I’m a bit surprised myself that I wasn’t able to write a dedicated blog post about the Orchestral category, but there are simply too many albums nominated from composers that I dont’ care enough about, often 20th century, from Casella, Dutilleux, Elgar, to Vaughan Williams.

So just a quick note about two albums in this section:

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Claudio Abbado – Orchestra Mozart

Schubert Symphony No. 9 Abbado Orchestra Mozart Deutsche Grammophon 2015

Going to be brief here, I love a lot of the stuff that Abbado did with his Orchestra Mozart, this isn’t my favorite. I’d much rather go with Dohnanyi as reviewed here.

And then there is Andris Nelson’s BSO recording of Shostakovich symphony no. 10. I don’t have that one yet, but really like his even more recent release of symphonies no. 5 and 9.

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Given that I haven’t heard 90% of the albums in this category, predicting the winner is obviously preposterous. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Nelsons wins here.

Recital

I’ve only spent a decent amout of time with one album in this section, the excellent Weber Sisters.

A side note on the Ricercar Cavalli album, I skipped through it, but found the Christina Pluhar album released pretty much at the same time more exciting. I may need to revisit that though.

And I gave Jonas Kaufmann’s Nessun Dorma as a present to my mother-in-law, she’s a big Kaufmann fan, and I must admit, the album is really worth checking out.

Mozart and the Weber Sisters – Sabine Devieilhe – Raphael Pichon – Ensemble Pygmalion

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

I’ve already reviewed this album, with 5 stars.

And I keep going back to it over and over again.

This is again one of the rare birds of albums where Classica (Choc de l’année), Diapason (5 stars), Gramophone (Editor’s choice, Gramphone Award nominee), and Telerama (4F) all agree.

She is nominated among the final 3 contenders in this category, I really hope she wins!

 

So in summary: Podger’s Biber, Pappano’s Aida, and Devielhe’s Mozart are the must have albums for me here, with Suzuki’s organ works also highly recommended.

 

What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinions!

 

You can find the albums here:

Bach Suzuki Organ Works

WF Bach Cembalo Concertos

Biber Rosary Sonatas Podger

Verdi Aida Pappano

Schubert 9 Abbado

Nelsons BSO Shostakovich 10

The Weber Sisters