The Legendary Bach Chaconne – My Favorite Keyboard Versions

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

If you follow my blog you know I like Bach. A lot. So how come I’ve never written about one of his greatest masterpieces, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin?

Honestly, no idea. Maybe because while I actually really admire the works, listening to solo violin is really an experience, in spite of all the artistic beauty of the composition, is not something I can bring myself to do everyday.

The most famous piece of the 6 works, BWV 1001-1006 is without doubt the Chaconne in D-minor of BWV1004.

It is mind-blowing not only by it’s length (around 14 min), while the average of the other parts is around 5 min only, but also by the amazing harmonic complexity (See below an example with Hillary Hahn.).

 

My favorite version of the original violin work is by the legendary Nathan Milstein (note there’s a mono and stereo version, plus several live recordings), but others, such as Henryk Szeryng, Isabelle Faust, or Rachel Podger, are also highly recommended.

Nathan Milstein Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin EMI 1954-1965

I found this beautiful quote from Joshua Bell about the Chaconne on Wikipedia: “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”. Well, there you go. And I fully agree.

Nevertheless, these works were largely forgotten for a long time and only rediscovered in the late 18th century by Schumann and Brahms.

Which gives me a perfect segue to what I’ll be writing about. The Chaconne, which is actually quite polyphonic (a daunting task on a solo instrument like the violin), has been transcribed for keyboard instruments many times. And I find myself listening to the keyboard transcriptions more often than the violin original (ok, I’m an amateur pianist myself, so I’m probably biased).

Transcription by Johannes Brahms – Jean Rondeau

One of the first transcriptions was actually done by Johannes Brahms himself, and just to make it “easier”, he wrote it for the left hand only.

It’s been played by many great pianists, like the legendary Krystian Zimerman.

My current favorite version of this piece however was released quite recently by French Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau on his album of Bach transcriptions called Imagine.

Jean Rondeau - Bach - Imagine Erato 24/96

Rondeau plays with a lot of insight and passion and a lot of rubato. In many ways, you can feel some of the romanticism of Brahms in this particular version (which probably is just me making things up, as Brahms didn’t compose this after all). The sound of Rondeau’s cembalo is particularly beautiful on this recording. The rest of the album is equally beautiful and highly recommended.

 

Transcription by Federico Busoni – Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016  

I’ve previously written about the great English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and his beautiful album Homages. He starts this album with the Busoni transcription. Busoni transcription really transforms this solo piece into the sound of an entire orchestra, and requires a true virtuoso to play. Amazing how much the original material of Bach can be transformed and still be of outstanding beauty.

 

Improvision by Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero is another pianist I wanted to write about for a long time. Her specialty is not only being able to play amazing classical music, but to improvise live in front of the audience. Her concerts (and I’ve only been to one of them so far, but want to go again) often include a part where she asks the audience to give their favorite tunes, she picks them up, and starts improvising, like this particular example:

But she also has released albums which include improvisations, like her album Bach and Beyond:

Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond

She also takes the Bach Chaconne and transforms it into something very personal on the piano (much shorter than the original at less than 5 minutes). It is not as impressive as Busoni’s massive version, but her personal touch is so beautiful, this entire album is veyr much worth checking out, and if she ever plays near you, you have to go!

 

You can find the albums here:

Milstein here (Qobuz)

Rondeau here (Qobuz) and here (AcousticSounds)

Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Montero here

Alina Ibragimova’s Mesmerizing Bach Concertos

Alina Ibragimova

Regular readers know that I’m a fanboy of some violin players, notably Rachel Podger (see last weeks post on her Four Seasons, and several others, e.g. this one) and Isabelle Faust (see for example here and here).

Since this year, I have to add a third name to that list, Alina Ibragimova. I’ve seen her live earlier this year playing French chamber music, and was blown away.

The real reason why I haven’t heard more of her is quite simple: Hyperion doesn’t allow streaming. Given that having access to a great streaming service is now my number one source for new music discovery, and how much new music there is to discover, it’s just hard to buy stuff blindly these days.

Plus, on the Bach violin concertos in question, I really had more than enough choice already in my library (just checked, 15 versions of BWV1041), not to mention the hundreds of versions available via streaming. And there is great stuff like above mentioned Rachel Podger, Julia Fischer, Janine Jansen, Giuliano Carmignola, just to mention a few.

So the hurdles for buying this were high. But I’m very glad that today I clicked on “Buy” on the Hyperion website this weekend and added version number 16 to my library.

Bach: Violin Concertos – Alina Ibragimova – Jonathan Cohen – Arcangelo (Hyperion 2015)

 

Alina Ibragimova Bach Violin Concertos Acrangelo Jonathan Cohen Hyperion Records 24 96

So, this version immediately rises to the top  of my recommendations.

Before I talk about the soloist, let me first spend some words on the excellent orchestra. Given it’s young age, it was founded in 2010 by Jonathan Cohen, it is not yet as well known as for example Les Arts Florissants or other historically informed ensembles.

However, it immediately becomes audible that this really is a world class ensemble. They play with both precision and joy, and really are essential in making this album so enjoyable.

Now to Ibragimova. She keeps things very simple. Very little vibrato (HIP obliging), but even beyond that, she keeps everything very transparent and clear. To my ears, this is exactly what this music needs, it is of such an outstanding beauty (take for example the adagio of BWV 1042) that really there is nothing that needs to be added. It is just blowing you away by the sheer power of the music.

Outstanding!

I think I have to return to Hyperion’s website (link below) more often. Ibragmova’s Mozart sonatas just received fantastic reviews, and I’ll need to see how they compare to my favorite version with, again, Rachel Podger (see here).

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Hyperion Records, download) or here (Prestoclassical, CD)

P.S. I know I’ve been reviewing a lot of baroque music recently, I promise a bit more diversity going forward

 

Bach: Mass in B-minor by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants – A Review

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

William Christie, now at the age of 73, is one of the greatest conductors of the historically informed practice (HIP).

The Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants he founded is among the best period ensembles out there. I’ve written about them several times already, e.g. about their Händel Album Music for Queen Caroline, or their Monteverdi Madrigal recording.

I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing William Christie with his ensemble twice already, once performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the London Barbican Theatre, and more recently, with Xavier de Maistre at Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie.

Bach’s B-Minor Mass BWV 232

I’ve written about this masterpiece twice already, initially about Philippe Herreweghe’s 3rd recording, and later about John Eliot Gardiner’s new recording.

I’ve said previously that this is one of the most important masterpieces ever written, and really never get tired of hearing it. In the liner notes to this album, William Christie calls it “[Bach’s] testament, his epitaph, a legacy to those who would follow him

Bach: Mass in B-minor – William Christie – Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

J.S. Bach Mass in B-minor William Christie Les Arts Florissants Live in Paris Harmonia Mundi 24/96

This is a very intimate recording (in spite of being live, this was recorded in 2016 at the Philharmonie de Paris). Both singing and playing are very delicate and balanced.

Tempi are relatively fast (especially compared to the old Karl Richter style) but never rushed. To quote Christie again from the liner notes: Quicker tempi suggest a more physical and dance-like approach to the music“.

Honestly, I really don’t know what to criticize here. I’m a fan of the lighter, more intimate approach, and of the faster tempi. I prefer this even to the very good 2015 Gardiner recording.

It doesn’t kick my all time favorite of Philippe Herreweghe of the throne of “best B-minor ever” for me personally, as the latter just adds a tiny bit more “sparkle”, but this an album really very much worth having.

My rating: 4 stars (actually very close to 5 stars, I just still give the edge to Herreweghe)

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

 

 

 

 

Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenout Play Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – A Sheer Pleasure!

Isabelle Faust

Regular readers of this blog know that I´m a self-declared fanboy of the German violinist Isabelle Faust, as seen here, here, or here.

While I wasn´t too much of an admirer of her recent Mendelssohn concerto recording, as it was “too HIP for my taste”, generally I tend to buy pretty much everything she releases.

Her Bach violin solo sonatas recording (in two volumes, also on Harmonia Mundi) is already excellent, so I was very curious to see how her latest release of the Bach would turn out.

Kristian Bezuidenhout

I was particularly curious given that we get the amazing Kristian Bezuidenhout on the harpsichord, a South-African pianist and keyboard player focusing on historic instruments that I’ve already mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed!

Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenhout (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord Isabelle Faust - Kristian Bezuidenhout Harmonia Mundi 2017 24 96

Unlike the famous sonatas for solo violin, these sonatas are much less often played. Which really is a pity as it is beautiful music that are really worth being explored in more detail.

By the way, these duo sonatas could also be performed in trio form with an optional viola da gamba. Here we  get the duo form.

I complained about the Mendelssohn lacking some richness in sound and playing.

Here honestly I wouldn’t know what to criticize. The sound of Faust relatively bright Stradivarius is just perfect here in all its brilliance , even singing in a way, and Bezuidenhout plays a harpsichord that has a beautiful rich body.

Harpsichords occasionally can sound a bit thin, making some Bach harpsichord recordings sound more like a typewriter.

None of that here, this is music that is engaging, even dancing, with two equal partners that visibly enjoy playing together.

The recording beautifully showcases the close connection these two masters have developed musically, and makes this entire recording a sheer pleasure to listen to.

My rating: 5 stars

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

UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: Gramophone agrees and gives this album an “Editor´s Choice” in their March 2018 issue.

Getting Seasonal Again with Three Beautiful Versions of Bach´s Magnificat

Magnificat BWV243

Actually, the Magnificat isn’t per see a Christmas-related work. It was however apparently very early on performed on Christmas Day, so it stuck around as a seasonal work. From a content perspective, this is actually about Mary, not Jesus.

This beautiful choral work has been recorded over and over again.

So instead of just picking up one version, let me write about 3 different versions that all have their merits, by outstanding musicians.

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach Magnificat Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn 24 192 2016

John Butt takes the Christmas connection seriously, and tries to fully reconstruct Bach´s own Christmas performance in Leipzig. Appropriately, you get some organ music and the Christmas Cantata BWV 63. He even intersects a Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her, a traditional German Christmas Carol, in the middle of the work.

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my comments about the Gramophone Awards nominees in 2016, giving this album 5 stars. My high opinion hasn’t changed, it still is one of the most beautiful version around, and combined with Linn´s excellent recording skills, this is very much worth having. Particularly memorable about this performance is the choir in all its glory.

But let’s look at two recent alternatives:

Bach: Magnificat / Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus – Vox Luminis – Lionel Meunier (Alpha 2017)

Bach: Magnificat Handel: Dixit Dominus Vox Luminis Lionel Meunier Alpha 2017 24 96

This is the most recent release among the three I´ll be writing about. The French Alpha label (OutThereMusic) is one of the most reliable labels I know, usually you can buy them nearly blindly. Nicely enough these days you don’t have to as they are available on most streaming services, which is also what I did first.

Vox Luminis I must admit was new to me, but a bit of research tells me it is an outstanding early music choir from Belgium (a hotspot of early and historically informed performance if there ever was one). And increasingly, they are not only a choir but also built up their own early music orchestra with it.

So how different is this version? Well, if Dunedin is all about sparkle, this is more about nuance and detail. Both really are outstanding recordings of the Magnifcat, you’ll just get a different perspective. So, talking colors, Dundedin is sparkling, polished gold, whereas Vox Luminis is more dark bronze. Both are beautiful in its own right.

What’s different here is the coupling, you get Vivaldis Dixit Dominus here. I’ve previously stated that I’m not a particular fan of the Red Priest, but this is one of the works that is certainly nice having in your catalogue.

Overall: Highly Recommended.

Bach / Vivaldi: Magnificat & Concerti – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations 

Bach Vivaldi Magnificat Concerti Jordi Savall PIerre Hantai Le Concert des Nations La Capella Reial de Catalunya AliaVox 2014 24 / 88

This is the “oldest” of the three recordings, but still pretty recent, as released in 2014.

I absolutely had to include it here, as I just noticed my entire blog in spite of its 2,5 years of existence hasn’t mentioned one of the grand masters of early music yet, the brilliant Jordi Savall.

Jordi Savall, with his trusted ensembles of La Capella Reial and Le Concert Des Nations, is a legend in early music performance. If you don’t know him yet go and discover some of his many outstanding releases.

Interestingly enough, baroque music is already relatively “late” for Savall who focused quite a bit on the pre-baroque era.

But here he shines, particularly in the Magnificat. Comparing to the two version above, this is the most “balanced” approach, mixing the brilliance of the Dunedin´s with the more intimate performance of Vox Luminis.

Very interesting here are the fillers. Again, no fan of Vivaldi, but both the concerto for two violins and Vivaldi´s own Magnificat are quite pleasing. Nothing I´d go out to buy personally.

But the moment we move from Italy to Germany, this album really becomes outstanding. As mentioned, Bach´s Magnificat is close to perfect, And then you get a very surprising filler again, with Bach, with his keyboard concerto BWV 1052.

And who is the soloist, if no other then my beloved Pierre Hantai (see also here and here). I must admit I’m still looking for my perfect version of the Bach keyboard concertos. This one won’t be my reference as Hantai has the occasional quirk (he certainly is a character) that I don’t necessarily always appreciate, but one thing is for sure, you won’t regret having this version in your library. I keep coming back to it all the time.

Summary

There really is not a winner here. Check all of them out, look at which filling material you prefer, no matter what you choose, you’ll make a good choice. The Dunedin may have a slight advantage from an audiophile perspective, but all three recordings are of very high audio quality and are available as high-res recordings, so you really have the beauty of choice here.

My rating for all three albums: 5 stars

 

Update Dec 20, 2017: For once, I don’t really agreed with the latest recommendation by both Classica and Gramophone, who strongly recommend the very recent release of John Eliot Gardiner on SDG. Already the opening movement of the Magnificat sounds so rushed that it reminds me in a way of a 33 tours LP played at 45 RPM. May just be me, but I don’t get it. On the other hand, Classica was only so-so about the recording of Vox Luminis. All these reviews can be found in their December 17 issues. Doesn’t change my opinion above obviously.

 

 

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)