Igor Levit’s Fascinating Complete Beethoven Cycle

This is not a “review”

Let me be clear from the start, this is not a formal “review” as I normally write them. I find it impossible to properly review all 32 sonatas, as I simply don’t have enough references for every single one of these fascinating works.

I must admit that to this day although I listen to them a lot in the complete cycles of e.g. Kempff, Arrau, Brendel, Goode, or Lewis, but there are still some of the lesser known sonatas that I really don’t know that well yet.

But I still want to bring this cycle to your attention, and am pretty sure you won’t regret checking it out.

Igor Levit

Igor Levit has been mentioned over and over on this blog. It is no secret I’m a big fan. He’s been mentioned in the list of My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, and I’ve already written about most of his recordings, be it the Bach Partitas, his Goldberg & Diabelli variations, or his recent, very personal album Life, and he’s pretty much consistently every year made the list of my top classical recordings of the year.

I’d also already mentioned his recording of the late Beethoven sonatas, the recording that put him on the map as one of the most promising young artists.

Levit decided not to re-record the late sonatas he previously released, so if you have the “old” album and now by the new box, you’ll have some redundancy.

Beethoven: The Complete Sonatas – Igor Levit (Sony 2019)

Igor Levit Beethoven Complete Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 2019 24 96

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Levit perform some of these sonatas live. At the 2019 Lucerne festival, he in a series of concerts has played all of the sonatas live, I’ve attended one of these concerts.

This was already an impressive performance. The studio recordings follow a very similar approach.

One this is for sure, Levit’s approach will never leave you bored. He often chooses quite extreme tempi, going quite slow or breathtakingly fast in some parts.

Therefore, to me this is one of the most exciting new Beethoven releases in recent years.

Gramophone agrees, giving this the Editor’s Choice, Jed Distler on Classicstoday calls it “significant and stimulating”, giving it a 10/10 rating, and most other professional reviewers agree that this is a cycle worth having.

To conclude, no formal rating from my side this time, just a very strong “check this out” message from my side, which in the days of streaming, is easier than ever. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed!

Really looking forward to your opinions this time.

You can find it here (Qobuz)

Piotr Anderszewski at Lucerne Festival with Bach and Beethoven – A Review

Piotr Anderszewski

My first “contact”, obviously virtual, with the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski was  when I reviewed the 2015 Gramophone Award nominees back in the early days of my blog. 

At the time, I wasn’t blown away by his recording of the English Suites, compared to my other favourites in this area, particularly Perahia and Pierre Hantaï.

So I was even more surprised when he won the Gramophone Award in this category over my personal favourites Levit and Grosvenor. 

In a nutshell, Piotr and I didn’t get off to a good start. 

Things improved more recently, when he was nominated again in 2017, for his Schumann album, which I really liked. I even meant to formally review it, which never happened for lack of time, but this album to this day is one I recommend without hesitation. 

But when I saw that he was playing the closing concert of the fall Lucerne Festival, which is always dedicated to the piano, and I happened to be in the area, I had to check it out.

Piotr Anderszewski at the 2018 Piano Lucerne Festival, KKL Lucerne, November 25, 2018

Piotr Anderszwewski at the KKL Lucerne, Lucerne Festival, November 25, 2018

If I needed any more convincing, the program helped. 

Anderszewski started off with parts of the Wohltemperiertes Klavier, especially the second book of the Well Tempered Clavier that I must admit I listen to much less than the first volume. 

This was really an amazing experience. Amazing intensity, while at the same time never too extrovert, a dense flow of sound, that really took you in as a listened. 

During the break, we got to admire the beautiful Christmas tree that Lucerne built up in front of the KKL’s main entry, together with a illuminated ice skating ring for kids that looked like taken out of a fairy tale (ok, I actually don’t know any fairy tales that feature ice skating rings, but you get the picture). Together with a glass of bubbly the break passed quickly.

Moving on to the “main  act”, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. I’ve previously written about them how they really aren’t easily accessible. It basically took me years to really appreciate them. By now, I have several favourites, including Andreas Staier, and obviously Igor Levit.

This was now the first time I heard this Opus Magnum live. I had pretty high  expectations after Andrew Clements in the Guardian called a similar performance by Anderszewski earlier this yearperhaps the most completely convincing reading of the Diabelli I’ve ever heard in the concert hall“.

Now, it was clearly also the most convincing reading for me, given that I heard it live for the first time, but bad pun aside, it was a fascinating reading.

What struck me most was the speed, or actually lack of it, that Anderszewski took. In many parts he really stopped time, or so it seemed. This may not be a performance that works on a recording, but in the beautiful acoustics of the large KKL hall, it worked wonders, and it truly became a transcendental experience in some moments. 

Overall, an amazing concert experience.

P.S. I didn’t find many reviews of this concert, but both the great Swiss critic Peter Hagmann, as well as Leonard Wüst on behalf of the Bochumer Zeitung, both reported very positively about their experience (both links in German only).

Murray Perahia Plays Beethoven Sonatas – Could This Be The Best “Moonlight” Ever?

Murray Perahia

Did I mention that I love Murray Perahia? Yes, actually, I did. He’s mentioned in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, his recent Bach Album made my Top 5 Classical Music albums of 2016.

So when a new Beethoven album from the great master came out on Deutsche Grammophon, I bought it pretty much immediately, without checking out the version via streaming as I’d typically do otherwise. His latest Beethoven sonata recording dates back to 2008, since then he’s been much more focused on Bach.

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 – Murray Perahia (Deutsche Grammophon 2018)

Beethoven: Sonatas No. 14 and 29 - Murray Perahia - Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Perahia attacks two of the most famous Beethoven sonatas here. No. 29, Hammerklavier, and the one that even non-classical listeners would recognize, the Moonlight.

Let me start by saying you immediately hear that Perahia has been playing a lot of Bach recently. If I had to summarize this album in one word, it would be “Clarity”, or “Transparency”. The counterpoint complexity of Bach certainly shines through on this album. Nothing is ever “too much”, even for these two sonatas that both mark the transition from the “classical” period to the starting “romantic” era.

Let’s start, as Perahia does, with the Hammerklavier heavyweight. This is one of the most pianistically challenging piano pieces out there. Especially if you’re trying to follow Beethoven’s original metronome marks, which some have considered unplayable. Perahia starts with a quite ambitious speed, but at no point this ever feels forced.

You get plenty of nuances especially in the beautiful Adagio, and the highlight could be the last movement, which stars seemingly simple with a little Largo, but then builds into a compex fuga type Allegro & Presto, where you can clearly hear that Beethoven knew his Bach, so Perahia really shines here.

I have yet to find my “perfect” Hammerklavier. Recently, the impressive version of Ronald Brautigam (played on an actual Hammerklavier-type historic instrument), or Igor Levit’s beautiful recording of the late sonatas, or you can obviously go back to the classics and pick your Serkin, Brendel, or Arrau. Actually, the complexity of this masterpiece is such that no one version will ever be “perfect”, you’ll always need more than one interpretation of this jewel.

Going to the Mondschein sonata, I’m going to contradict myself immediately: This could well be “the” perfect version of the Moonlight sonata, at least of the world famous Adagio sostenuto. 

Let me explain: He takes the movement relatively fast, with 5:16 I have only 3 versions in my library that take less time (my fastest version is Schnabel by the way, with 4:51).

What is so outstanding about this version goes back to the word I used earlier, “clarity”. This is played in a very plain, no-nonsense style. With such an overloaded romantic piece, there often is a tendency of just doing a bit too much, too much rubato, too much dynamic variation, etc. etc.

But honestly, this outstanding beauty of masterwork doesn’t need any of this. This apparent simplicity is just what makes this music truly shine. I can’t get enough of it. This could well become my new personal reference for No. 14.

My rating: 5 stars

 

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

 

UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: For once, we have an album where all critics agree. In their respective March editions, both Gramophone (Editor´s Choice & Recording Of The Month) and Classica (CHOC) give this album their highest rating.

 

François-Frédéric Guy Live at Maison de la Radio Paris – Sep 29, 2017

François-Frédéric Guy

I’ve written previously about Guy´s great recording of the Brahms piano sonatas. As I was in Paris last weekend, I noticed him giving a piano recital at the Maison de la Radio. Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms sonata no. 3. I was lucky enough to still get tickets.

Guy is one of those underrated pianists that outside of his home country typically are not well known. But I heard good things about his Beethoven cycle as well, and had very high expectations.

François-Frédéric Guy: Clair de Lune – Liszt, Beethoven, and Brahms – Live at Maison de la Radio, Paris

Maison de la Radio, hidden in the quite 16th arrondissement of Paris, is a 1960s building that has housed French public radio for decades now.

They have several rooms for public concerts, but the biggest one is the beautiful Auditorium, very recently renovated.

Auditorium of Maison de la Radio, Paris
Auditorium of Maison de la Radio, Paris

Therefore I already had a visual treat, before the music even started

Auditorium Maison de la Radio, Paris
Auditorium Maison de la Radio, Paris

 

The concert itself started with Liszt, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude from his Harmonies poétiques et religieuses. Liszt these days often tends to be underestimated compared to the big names of Brahms and Beethoven. And maybe his orchestral work is not always top notch, and even his very large piano work sometimes tends to go a bit overboard.

But when Liszt gets it right, and is well played (not obvious, given the technical hurdles), it is really just outstandingly beautiful. This was the case here, I was mesmerized by the beauty of this piece.

François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio (c) 2017 Musicophile
François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio

After this fantastic start came the title piece of the concert, Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata no. 14, (Clair de lune in French). I wasn’t as taken by this part of the concert as I was by the Liszt. One part of the problem was potentially that a young teenager noisily dropped his cell phone and it fell several steps down in the middle of the quiet intense beginning. This kind of stuff really can ruin my mood for a bit.

It may also have been simply the fact that we all have heard the Mondscheinsonate so many times, that we form a certain idea in our head. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautifully played (even with the occasional false note in the Presto), with a lot of rubato in the slow movement, a very personal version. So let’s just blame it on the noisy kid that I couldn’t enjoy this part as much.

After the break, Guy started his Brahms sonata. And wow, he really played is as intensely as I’ve ever heard anybody play Brahms. You could literally see how physically exhausted he was after this long piece of music with its 5 movements. An outstanding experience.

François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio
François-Frédéric Guy at La Maison de la Radio

Guy got the applause he deserved, and thanked us with not only one, but two encores.

After another Brahms, we were all ready to get up and leave, but he sat down again, and guess what he played: Für Elise. Yes, that one. the one that every piano student plays, the one that even people who don’t know anything about classical music recognize immediately. And guess what, it showed that there is so much more in this music than typically meets the eye.

A beautiful closure to an evening full of emotions.

My rating: 4 stars

The Complete Beethoven String Quartets by the Takács Quartet – A Masterpiece

Beethoven’s String Quartets

I haven’t written that much yet about Beethoven’s string quartets. It is a hard to cover vast subject of 16 masterpieces, from the early ones that are still very reminiscent of Haydn, to the middle ones (mainly the Rasumovksy ones), that clearly match the power of the major Beethoven symphonies, to the entirely different universe that are the late quartets, that enter completely unheard harmonic complexities, that go even beyond his symphonic works.

How can one quartet really do them all justice? Typically, reviewers recommend getting different boxes for the different periods, and they are right.

However, some outstanding artists are able to just set a standard for all three periods. And the Takács Quartet is just one of them.

When Decca re-released the complete Beethoven box that was originally recorded in the early 2000s, I had to go back to it. I’m very glad I did, I was again blown away.

Beethoven: Complete String Quartets – Takács Quartet (Decca 2017 Remaster)

 

Takacs Quartet Beethoven Complete String Quartets Decca 24 48 2017 remaster

The Takacs Quartet has been around since 1975! They are probably one of the most outstanding string quartets ever. I’ve praised the Takacs´ several times already (See for example here my review of their fantastic Schubert), and remain a great fan of them.

In this box, in the early quartets of op. 18, you get all the Viennese lightness. These are just a pleasure to listen to. These works need to “swing”, and the Takacs just pull it off.

Moving to the more serious op. 59, the Takacs´switch gear appropriately. Take quartet no. 9, op. 59 no. 3, that starts with a very “serious” Andante con moto. This part occasionally reminds me of a Mahler symphony. And here, you get the full weight and emotional power this work requires, before moving on to the Allegro part, that gives you the Beethoven you are most likely to think of when you hear the name.

The late quartets again are a completely different animal. Let’s take for example op. 127. I have a pretty direct comparison, having only recently heard this played live by the equally fantastic Quatuor Ébène (see my concert review here). Comparing the two approaches here, let´s say we could characterise the Ébène’s live approach with “Passion”, and the Takacs’s with “Precision”. These are obviously simplifications, but you get the idea. Both are absolutely fantastic versions, and show you how much there is to discover in these masterworks, that are unfortunately not very approachable for the beginner. Give them some time, and they will grow on you.

If you only ever wanted to own one version of the Beethoven string quartets, this really would be the one to have. I´d strongly advise against having only one version, there are so many others to discover, and Beethoven’s quartets really are among the most outstanding masterpieces the Western world ever produced.

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Prostudiomasters) or here (Prestoclassical, as limited edition disc set with some bonus DVDs)

Quatuor Ebène Plays Mozart & Beethoven – Tonhalle Zürich – June 11, 2017 – A Review

Quatuor Ebène

About a year ago I wrote about Quatuor Ebènes outstanding Schubert recording with Gautier Capuçon. For me, it was the album that should have won the Gramphone awards in 2016 in their category.

My first encounter with this young French quartet was even before that, with their excellent recordings of quartets by Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn.

They really are among the best string quartets out there in 2017, and this is not for a lack of competition.

So I was very pleased when I saw that they’d be coming to Zurich on a day where I’d be close by, yesterday, June 11, 2017

Tonhalle Zürich

A quick word about the Tonhalle Zürich. I’m actually not such a great fan of that venue (Luzern’s modern KKL is much nicer for my taste), but that said, both the big and small concert hall are have their end of 19th century luxury baroque style, and the 1930s incorporation of the old concert halls into the Zurich congress center is an interesting contrast of style.

Quatuor Ebene Tonhalle
Detail of Tonhalle Zürich Lobby

 

Between the two halls, I quite prefer the smaller one use for chamber music. I’ve had a number of fantastic concerts in here, including the great Quatuor Mosaiques with Haydn.

As a side note, the Tonhalle and the Kongresshaus will be renovated soon, and Zurich is currently preparing the Maag Music Hall in Zurich’s industrial “Kreis 5”, far away from the fancy shores of Lake Zurich, where the Tonhalle is a direct neighbor to the posh Hotel Baur Au Lac, to a completely different environment.

Maag Music Hall
Maag Music Hall back in January 2017

 

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Zürich, June 11, 2017

But back to the good old Tonhalle.

Quatuor Ebène, dressed in black,  as the name (ebony) implies, started with Mozart.

Quatuor Ebène at Tonhalle Kleiner Saal Jun 11, 2017
Quatuor Ebène

But not with your Kleine Nachtmusik “Happy Mozart”, but with a romantic Sturm and Drang Mozart, the Mozart of Don Giovanni, sharing the same key, d-minor, somehow transporting Mozart directly into the 19th century. There is a lot of chiaroscuro, changing from shadows to the light in this work.

They have recorded this on their 2011 Mozart album, but this live interpretation went beyond what they recorded, there was an enormous passion in the room.

The move to Beethoven felt like a logical next step, with a very intimate connection to the Mozart.

They started with the latest of the “middle quartets”, op. 95, also known as Quartetto Serioso. Unlike some other nicknames like e.g. Moonshine, it appears that this name is genuinely by Beethoven.

It is not the most accessible of the middle quartets, it’s “seriousness” making it one of the most drastic works he’s ever written. This work mentally belongs much more to the late quartets.

Quatuor Ebene put all their energy into this and played as if their lives depended on it. The passion was tangible in the room.

After the break we returned to get the opus magnum of the evening. Just one number later in the list of Beethoven’s string quartets, no. 12 to be precise, op. 127. This work not only has the length of a symphony (and I’m talking Beethoven symphony), but also the power. Who would have thought that only 4 strings can fill a room with so much power?

But there wasn’t only power. The more than 16 minutes long Adagio was all subtleness, which transported the audience out of this world for the moment.

After the final movement, the Swiss audience simply didn’t want to stop clapping, clearly expecting an encore.

At the end, the four musicians came back out, without their instruments this time, explaining in a very friendly way that they felt that after such a work as op. 127, which they compared to the chamber equivalent of Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, there simply wasn’t any music they could play that wouldn’t be out of place.

I couldn’t have said it better.

What a concert. Magnificent

 

Rémi Geniet Plays Beethoven Sonatas – A Review

Beethoven’s piano sonatas

I haven’t written about Beethoven’s piano sonatas yet on this blog, except for mentioning Igor Levit’s beautiful rendition of the late piano sonatas here.

Why? No idea. It is such a massive body of work, 32 sonatas, no really weak stuff in there, the late sonatas being particularly challenging. How do you attack such a mountain, or more precisely mountain range?

Rémi Geniet

Rémi Geniet, a young French pianist, must have asked himself the same question. His answer is an album that covers 4 sonatas from the very early op. 2 to the very late op. 110.

Who is Rémi Geniet? A young (born 1992) French pianist, who released a beautiful Bach album two years ago that was highly praised. He also won several competitions including the Horowitz International Competition in Kiew.

Geniet Plays Beethoven Sonatas

Rémi Geniet Beethoven Piano Sonatas Mirare 2017 24/96

From Bach to Beethoven. A small step? Well not really, actually anything but.  But Geniet manages this challenge beautifully.

You get a mix from Beerhovens sonata cycle, as mentioned above from the very early sonata no. 2 to the penultimate sonata no. 31.

The really famous sonata here is the “Moonshine“, no. 14, probably the piano piece that even non classical listeners will have heard at some point. Attacking such an earworm is obviously tricky, we all have some form of reference in our head. And what references, from Schnabel, to Arrau, to Brendel, or more recently Paul Lewis or Ronald Brautigam.

How does he compare against such great names of the piano? Well, actually, quite well.
Take the first movement. This, if done badly, can drown in kitsch. No kitsch here, you get  simplicty, very clean playing , no “fuzz”. But actually, this makes the entire experience nevertheless extremely intense.

He takes extremely technically challengingthird movement (Presto agitato) breathtakingly fast, but with extreme precision. Again, this is truly impressive.

All this really comes without neglecting musical substance. Take for example the sonata no. 31. Beethoven’s late sonatas, like his late string quartets, are works of extreme intellectual substance. You simply cannot gloss over them. Pianists typically only tackle them later in the career. But here, similar to Levit mentioned above, Geniet just goes for it, and very successfully.

Overall rating: 4 stars (at certain moments of playing I’d give a 5 star, but there is so much competition out there in the Beethoven space, that it is hard to consistently outperform all the piano legends).

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