Hype vs. Hype – Lang Lang vs. Benjamin Grosvenor

First of all, to my subscribers, you may have been surprised not to see a post yesterday. This indeed has been the first time since I started this blog nearly 6 month ago that I didn’t post anything on my regular schedule of every 2-3 days. I unfortunately had a health issue in the family. I’ll really target to get fully back on schedule with posts appearing at least every 3 days.

Second, to the Jazz fans among my readers, hope you don’t get bored, my blog has been rather focused on classical music for the last posts. I’m working on getting back to Jazz ASAP.

But well, one more on classical music.

This one was triggered by my mother in law, suggesting I should write about Lang Lang’s latest album. When I spoke to her, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard it yet, but wasn’t a big fan of Lang Lang in general. Her answer was, “So why don’t you compare it to something you like better?”.

Well, here we go.

“Hyped* classical music artists

Every once in a while there are musicians out there, that, usually helped either by YouTube (e.g. Valeria Lisitsa) or by the label (remember Vanessa Mae?) that are rather well-known even to a non classical audience, and have a certain pop-star following. Sometimes (e.g. Jonas Kaufmann) the hype is correlated with quality, more often than not, I find the correlation between fame and quality in classical music to be not very strong.

Lang Lang is a typical example. He’s probably today’s best known pianists (don’t have any data to back this up unfortunately). And as I said to my mother-in-law above, I have yet to hear a Lang Lang album I really like.

But thanks to my streaming subscription I could simply check the latest album out and make up my own mind.

Lang Lang in Paris Chopin Tchaikovsky Sony 2015

The Chopin Scherzi

A word of introduction on the music: the album consists of the four Chopin Scherzi, and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for piano. I’m not very familiar with the latter, so I’m not going to comment on the performance.

However, I just love the Scherzi. There is an entire world in the 6-12 minutes of each one, and they are among my absolute favorite piano pieces by Chopin.

So my expectations were rather high. And I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.

No. 1 was just too nervous, to ADHD (my wife told me to switch albums when we listened to it together).

No. 2 is nicely flowing at the beginning, but getting a bit quirky over time, and again too nervous in the fast parts.

No. 3 is probably the best of the four, a bit too much still, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.

The worst was probably no. 4, just too much forte all over the place, and just too slow for my taste.

Benjamin Grosvenor

Now, as suggested by my wise mother-in-law, let me write about my recommended alternative.

And actually another form of “hype”, albeit at a smaller scale.

Benjamin Grosvenor at the tender age of 24 has won more awards already than others in a lifetime. He was Gramophone’s youngest-ever double award winner, and the rest of the British (and partially international) press went just as crazy about him.

So how’s the hype working out here?

Well actually, I’m a HUGE fan. His Chopin Liszt Ravel album, which features all 4 Scherzi, is just outstanding, and his more recent release Dances was not far behind in terms of quality (I mentioned it my comments about the 2015 Gramophone awards here).

There are obviously other outstanding versions of the Scherzi out there (Argerich for no. 3, Rubinstein, and the best I’ve heard was Kristin Zimerman for no. 2 in a live concert), but the recording here is pretty close to perfect.

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

My rating: 3 stars (Lang Lang) vs. 5 stars (Grosvenor)

You can find the Lang Lang here (Qobuz) if you really insist, and the Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical).

The official “making of” of the Lang Lang in Paris album here:

My Reflections on the 2015 Gramophone Award Nominees – Part I – Instrumental

Gramophone Award Nominees

The Gramophone awards nominees are now officially declared. This award is probably among the most prestigious award in classical music (beyond the obvious Grammy), so it is always interesting to see who’s in.

As said before, I don’t always agree with Gramophone but their opinions are always worth checking out.

If you have an iPad, you can download the Gramophone magazine app (the primary way I read the magazine these days, no shipment, no paper wasted) and get the Gramophone awards nominee issue for free. It’s worth checking out.

Let me comment on some recordings I know well and also play Oracle of Delphi who will eventually win.

Instrumental

There are four album in here I own or have heard, three of which I’ll be talking about here.

Bach’s English Suites with Piotr Anderszewski

Piotr Anderszewski Bach English Suites 1 3 5 Warner Classics

Well this one is a typical example where I don’t agree with Gramophone.  I can’t really put my finger on it but this album just doesn’t excite me. Maybe it is the tempo, maybe it is the touch, don’t know. Bach on a modern piano is always tricky, you really need to justify these days why you’d use the “wrong” instrument (instead of a harpsichord or similar).

My rating: 3 stars

Bach: Partitas – Igor Levit

Igor Levit Bach Partitas Sony Classical

This album, however, is a typical example of getting it just right. I don’t mind one second not hearing a harpsichord. Levit is an extraordinary talent; his previous recording of the late Beethoven sonatas was outstanding as well.

I’ve been listening to this times and times over, it’s been replacing even Perahia as my go-to version. So this album to me is a hot contender to win this category.

My rating: 5 stars

However, if I had to bet, I’d say the following will be the category winner (and not only because let’s say Gramophone sometimes seems to have a certain preference for their countrymen):

Benjamin Grosvenor – Dances

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

5 years younger than the still very young Levit (years of birth 1992 and 1987 respectively), Grosvenor could be qualified as a Wunderkind. What a horrible term.

Actually, it really goes beyond this, he is just a truly brilliant artist who just happens to be very young. His previous album Chopin/Liszt/Ravel was truly fantastic, and his new release with “Dances” from Bach via Granados to Scriabin is another example of what he can achieve. With him, even relatively useless (sorry) pieces like Schulz-Evler’s questionable version of An der schönen Blauen Donau become enjoyable. (Ok, he could have skipped the Boogie-Woogie…).

An absolute must have!

My rating: 5 stars

Also nominated are a live recital of Mahan Esfahani (haven’t heard), Sokolov’s Salzburg recital (his Chopin Preludes here really aren’t my cup of tea, 3 stars), and La Fauvette passerinette by Peter Hill (haven’t heard either).

So what are your thoughts and ideas? Who would you have chosen?