Bach / Beethoven / Rzewski – Igor Levit Attacks Goldberg and Diabelli – Wow!

Wunderkinder?

The classical music scene, like all other entertainment industries, likes hypes. Quite often those are a bit fabricated, and at a closer look tend to disappoint (sorry, Lang Lang), or their presence in the limelight is very short-lived just to be replaced by the next wunderkind. And I’m afraid, the big classical labels have their share of the blame (well, they have to sell their stuff, too).

That said, in this long list of young stars and starlets, every once in a while you’ll find a true artist. I’ve already written about Rafal Blechacz and Benjamin Grosvenor, both of which will end up in the pantheon of the best pianists of the 21st century, I’m willing to be a lot of money on that.

Igor Levit

My third name in the triumvirate of 21st century giants is Igor Levit. I’ve already praised his outstanding partitas here, and his first album, the late Beethoven sonatas, is also exceptional.

Levit was born in Russia but moved at the age of 8 to Hanover, Germany, where he lives to this day (why somebody would stay in what is probably the dullest city in Germany escapes me, but at least nothing there distracts him from practicing, which is good for the rest of us).

He has now released his third album, a massive 3 CD affair (or what used to be 3 CDs in the pre-download area). It takes some guts to start your recording career on nothing less than Beethoven’s late piano sonatas at the age of 26. Well, with his latest release, he doesn’t attack only one, but two of the absolute summits of the piano repertoire, the Goldberg AND the Diabelli variations. So will he lose his breath in this Himalaya?

Goldberg and Diabelli

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

I’ve already shared my preference on both (see here for the Goldberg’s and here for the Diabelli’s), so how does Levit compare to Hantaï, Schiff, and Staier?

Well, let’s make it quick: this is yet another outstanding album. His Goldberg’s are really among the best I’ve ever heard on modern piano. All you Gould lovers out there, check this out! Really. You may miss Glenn’s humming, but honestly there is nothing else to miss here.

Levit plays with astonishing precision, but at the same time you just hear every note is just there, just at the right moment, with just the right weight. This immediately becomes my go-to version on modern piano (although I still prefer harpsichord here, so will remain loyal to Hantaï nevertheless).

Now to the Diabelli’s. I’ve already given my preference with Schiff’s ECM recording and Staier on pianoforte. And now I immediately have to add this recording to this list.

Again, what wins me over immediately is the precision and timing. And don’t get me wrong, just because I mention precision so much doesn’t mean this is heartless robot playing. To the contrary.

Just to quote some examples: On the slow variations 14 and 20, time just seems to stop. For a moment you are in a different time and space. Absolutely absorbing.

Or take variation 21. moving from fast to slow all the time, which on some recordings can make you feel a bit sea-sick. Not here, any tempo change just comes along completely natural.

You get a glimpse of his virtuosity in the breathtaking speed of variation 27. But Levit is anything but your classical virtuoso, he uses his outstanding technical capabilities only for purely musical purposes, never to impress (although I’d be very curious to hear Levit eventually moving away from Bach and Beethoven and attack Rachmaninov et al, unfortunately he’s already said he doesn’t want to play Chopin as Blechacz does it so well).

I’m not going to comment on the Rzewski, I’m just completely incompetent to add any meaningful comment to any music that goes beyond traditional tonality. That said, this piece has enough moments that make me want to listen to more, which is more that I can say about a lot of other 21st century classical music.

So, overall, yet another absolute must have album from Levit.

My rating: 5 stars

UPDATE Nov 6, 2015: Gramophone agrees with me and gives this album a “Recording of the Month”.

UPDATE Nov 29: My other preferred classical review magazine, Classica, is also pleased and gives this recording 4 stars.

You can get it here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

A Disappointment From Andreas Staier – How Can That Be? – My Review of the Bach Harpsichord Concertos

Andreas Staier

Let me start by pointing out that I’m a big fan of Andreas Staier. I’ve praised his Diabelli Variations here, I like his approach to Mozart and Schumann, as well as his album “Pour Passer la Mélancholie”. His 2012 album of the 6 piano concertos by Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach is outstanding.

Freiburger Barockorchester

The same goes for the Freiburger Barockorchester (who joins Staier on excellent the CPE Bach album above). Their recording of the Bach Orchestral Suites is my go-to version, and the recently started Schumann cycle with Isabelle Faust, Alexander Melnikov and Jean-Guihen Queyras (more about the Melnikov in the next days) is very very good.

The Bach “Piano” concertos

Bach wrote quite a number of concertos for harpsichord. As was not unusual at the time, several of them were probably recycled from other sources, e.g. other solo concertos or cantatas. You’ll find concertos for 1-4(!) soloists.

So far, I still haven’t found “my” version. My currently preferred versions are the 2011 Linn recording of the Retrospect Ensemble with Matthew Halls conducting and playing, Pierre Hantai’s slightly idiosyncratic but very interesting version with Le Concert Français (see my review of his Goldberg variations here), and most of all Café Zimmermann’s energetic readings, which are unfortunately spread over 6 albums (all worth getting anyhow!) and only have the concertos with several instruments.

Therefore, when I heard about this recording by Staier with the Freiburger, I was very excited and already had it on pre-order. Luckily, I was distracted, didn’t get to click on buy, and therefore ended up listening to it on Qobuz streaming first.

Bach: Harpsichord Concertos - Andreas Staier - Freiburger Barockorchester - Harmonia Mundi 2015

I’m happy I did, because at this stage I don’t think I will end up buying this album.Maybe it was just that I was expecting too much, but my “inner ear” has a very different idea on how these concertos should sound.

It pains me to write critical words about musicians that I admire very much, but the album generally sounds a bit heavy and slow, and does not at all the lightweight “swing” I so much love about most recent Historically Informed Performances.

In a way this reminds me of Karl Richter’s way of playing Bach. There is obviously nothing wrong with approaching the music this way, it is just really not my cup of tea.

Obviously this approach, and the sometimes slower tempi also allow for more nuances and there are very beautiful moments in this album, e.g. in the Largo of BWV1056.

But most of the time, this is not for me.

Overall rating: 3 stars. I really didn’t expect ever to give such a relatively low rating to these outstanding musicians. is it just me? I’d really love to hear your feedback especially if you disagree!

EDIT August 28, 2015: I seem to be the odd one out here with my opinion. Classica “Choc”, 5 stars from Diapason, 5 stars from the Guardian. So be warned, I may just be a crazy lunatic in not particularly liking this album. I’d appreciate even more your feedback on this, as after 4 more listenings, I stand by my opinion. Please tell me if I need a new pair of ears!

EDIT Oct 11, 2015: Just reading the review in the October issue of Gramophone, and at least Jonathan Freeman-Atwood seems to have heard what I’ve heard. To quote: “If you’re looking for fun, abandon, lyricism, radiant lift off […] and luminosity, then maybe this one is not for you”. He’s spot on, that’s exactly what’s lacking for me.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations and The Brilliant Pierre Hantaï

The Goldberg Variations

I’ve already mentioned the written about the Diabelli-Variations, this K2 of the piano variation catalogue. Now I’m attacking the Everest, and all this without Sherpa.

Well to be fair, all I need to do is write about it, I wouldn’t be able to play any of them beyond the Aria in any case. So probably no Sherpa needed.

What makes the Goldberg-Variations so special? I still have a hard time putting my finger on it. Obviously, you’ll have heard it in a gazillion of movies, whenever the director want to portrait a hero as particularly intellectual, the Goldberg’s come up sooner or later. Hannibal Lecter may only be the most prominent of them. In any case, there is something just extremely fascinating how Bach takes this extremely simple melody and deconstructs it 32 times, in an almost analytical cubist way.

Glenn Gould – yes, there’s him, too

You can’t write about the Goldbergs without mentioning Glenn Gould, one of the first pop stars of the classical world (2M copies sold may not impress Madonna, but still). He recorded the variations twice, once in 1955, really helping this work to become world-famous, and once again in 1981. Fans have been arguing forever which version is better. Personally, I prefer the 1981 version, that said, the Goldbergs are somehow really something I appreciate much more on harpsichord. Plus, his humming with the music, I kind of tolerate this with Keith Jarrett, but for classical music it is really annoying.

Anyway, enough ink has been spilled on these, let me go to my personal preferred artist for these, Pierre Hantaï. (If you prefer the Goldbergs on a modern piano, check out Angela Hewitt, Andras Schiff, or Murray Perahia).

Pierre Hantaï

Hantaï is a French harpsichord player and conductor who has worked with all the great masters of baroque, from Gustav Leonhardt to Sigiswald Kuijken to Jordi Savall. Unfortunately, he records way to rarely, so you will find only a handful of albums from him. This probably hasn’t helped his international reputation, he seems to be still relatively unknown in the non-French speaking world. This is a real pity.

PIerre Hantai Goldberg 1992 recording, Naive reissue

Given how few solo recordings he’s made, you’ll be surprised to see that he has recorded the Goldberg variations twice, in 1992 (recently re-released on the Naïve label) and in 2003 on the Mirare label.

Pierre Hantai Goldberg variations Mirare 2003

Which one to get? Honestly, I don’t know, and I’m going to bail out and say, if you can afford it, both. Both are performances that trump pretty much all of what I’ve heard elsewhere. 1992 is occasionally more energetic, 2003 more reflective, but both are just superb.

In the booklet to the 2003 edition it is mentioned that the Goldberg’s are a work that “he’s played more often than any other since childhood”. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers has written about the 10,000 hours it takes to truly master something. While this claim has recently been challenged, I suppose this is still one of those examples of this rule.

My rating: 5 stars for both

You can find the recordings here and here as downloads and here in physical form (1992 recording only, the 2003 seems to be harder to find on CD).

Can Heaven Be Captured On Disc? Bach’s B-minor Mass BWV 232

Another entry on Bach. Maybe I should add him to my Blog title.

In any case, I just had to write about the b-minor mass, as it is such a fantastic work of art, one of the absolute highlights of the entire classical repertoire in my view.

Again, if you want to know more about the history, I don’t feel like I need to copy Wikipedia here, the only thing that is a bit particular about the story of this mass is actually that it is a full traditional catholic mass, given that Bach was a protestant composer. Actually, Bach apparently never performed the full thing in one go during his lifetime.

Well we don’t need to care about these historic details, we can just sit back and enjoy this amazing beauty. It is pretty long, around 2h, but there is so much to discover that it is worth putting down our tendency of ADHD (and I’m the first to admit to that disease) and listen to it from back to back. If your ADHD is too much of an issue, just pick out parts, as JSB would have done during his time.

The Great Catholic Mass

What is so special about this work (to give it its formal title “Messe in h-moll BWV232“, or as Carl Phillip Emanuel Bach called it the “Great Catholic Mass”? To me, it is most of all the overwhelming power. I’ve said before that I’m not religious, but  when I hear the choir sing the “Kyrie eleyson” (Lord, have mercy) with full organ backup,  I’m sometimes getting second thoughts. Or take the “Qui tollis”, how the choir interacts with the solo flute, or to give a final example, the beautiful glory of the “Sanctus”. Just amazing.

Karl Richter

The first version I ever had of this was, as many other probably, Karl Richter’s legendary 1961 version.

MI0003369506

There is still a lot of positives about this recording today, including the outstanding soloists (Fischer-Dieskau, anybody?). That said, a lot of time has passed since this version and the last 50 years have completely changed our reception of Bach and other Baroque works, thanks to the movement of “historically informed performance” by Harnoncourt et al. in the 1970s/80s.

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the sheer power of this version, I’m not going back to it that often.

Philippe Herreweghe – omne trium perfectum – All Good Things Come By in Threes

Philippe Herreweghe (yes I know, again as well) has recorded the b-minor mass three times (to quote Herreweghe himself: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). All three recordings are very good, my preferred one by small margin is the last one from 2011 on his own label Phi. It was recorded in Berlin.

5400439000049

It just gives you the perfect balance, it is not over the top, but extremely intense.

Another excellent alternative, and my other favorite, is Frans Brüggen’s older recording from 1990 on Philips.

1267109913107

Obviously, there are many others that have done an excellent job, from Gardiner (see also here) to Hengelbrock, to Suzuki. But these two recordings are just one tiny notch above the very busy crowd.

5 stars for both recordings.

UPDATE Nov 20, 2015: You’ll find a review of Gardiner’s 2015 recording of the b-minor mass here.

 

You can find the Herreweghe here (Qobuz)

Bach Cello Suites – Purity at the highest level

While Brahms made it into the title of my blog, as he’s been historically my favorite composer, I may as well have mentioned Bach. I know I’m not very creative in my choice of composers as good old Johann Sebastian figures in so many best of composers lists, but to be fair, he’s there for a reason.

Bach in a way is the founding father of modern music. Anything before him sounds if you listen to it today very “old” (take early Baroque like Monteverdi or Renaissance artists), but most stuff from Bach, if you hear it today, sounds relatively contemporary in the chord changes and harmonies. Is it because the well-tempered scale was invented around that time? Well, more scholarly minds than me have certainly spent a lot of time thinking about it.

You can never have enough Bach. There is barely a month where I don’t add a new Bach album to my collection (latest additions were Claire-Marie LeGuay’s album and Pierre Hantaï’s English Suites). His St. Matthew’s and St John’s passions are a must hear every year doing the Easter period (and again, I’m not religious at all), there is no Christmas without his Oratorio, his Orchestral Suites and Brandenburg Concertos, while being the “pop” music of his time, still please after 100s of times being heard. His b-minor mass is probably the most beautiful liturgical work ever written (ok, it has serious competition, but anyhow). His sonatas for solo violin are about the only way a single violin on its own is enjoyable to listen to.

And now writing about another of his solo masterpieces: the Cello Suites (BWV 1007-1012). Pablo Casals did a great job promoting them, and his recording still is a must have. Unfortunately, from a recording point of view it is really not pleasure.

Steven Isserlis

Now which one to choose if you want a contemporary one? A tough decision, given that pretty much every Cello player on earth has played (and often recorded) them. My personal favorite at this stage is Steven Isserlis 2007 recording on Hyperion.

Bach_ Cello-Suiten - Isserlis

Why this out of this extensive catalogue? Well in any case there are many other beautiful versions I appreciate (Starker, Queyras, Wispelwey to name just a few), what makes Isserlis so special to me is the purity of his tone. As both the bible and the Tropicana commercial say, “nothing added, nothing taken away”. He is not excessive in his tempi or phrasing, there is very little vibrato, the sound of the cello is beautiful, clear, but not overly heavy or dark.

In a way, this recording reminds me of one of those famous Japanese Zen gardens, just freshly raked. You don’t even want to touch the little pebbles, fearing to destroy the balance. This is where Isserlis takes me.

EDIT: August 27, 2015: Thanks to the Gramophone Awards 2015, I finally stumbled across the recent version by David Watkin. See my entry here. Watkins recording is a just outstanding, near-perfect version on a historic cello. I still love Isserlis, but this is even better.