Musicophile’s Top 10 Chopin Albums

This list was triggered by a very interesting thread on a discussion forum I participate in, on Computer Audiophile. The thread is called “My Essential Classical Albums” by a forum participant called Sphinxsix.

The entire thread is very much worth checking out, I found a lot of recommendations on there already.

But with this specific question regarding Chopin, I noticed that I already pretty much had all the recordings I recommended covered on my blog. So in part, this is also a “best of list” of my Chopin blog posts. But there are also quite a number of albums I haven’t featured yet.

For those albums previously covered, you will find links in the entries below to the original blog posts. In the original blog posts, you’ll also find their respective download links.

1. The Nocturnes – Moravec

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

To me, the Nocturnes are the quintessential Chopin, even more than the Preludes or the Etudes. And when we talk Nocturnes, the legendary Ivan Moravec version really is unbeatable. It is not by coincidence that I’ve ranked Moravec in my in My Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists for this album alone. I’ve also mentioned this Album in My 25 Essential Classical Music album, as it is so important to me.

2. The Preludes – Blechacz

Chopin Complete The Preludes Rafal Blechacz Deutsche Grammophon

Right after the Nocturnes, the Preludes are my favorite Chopin, both op. 10 and 25 are oustanding achievements. Here again I could have listed dozens of recordings, but for a Top10 list I’d really like to restrict myself to the young Polish pianists Rafal Blechacz, who recorded this as one of his first albums on Deutsche Grammophon after winning the Warsaw Chopin competition. Another “triple winner”, as he also shows up in My Top 10 Classical Pianists and My 25 Essential Classical Music albums with this recording.

3. The Scherzos – Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

Some readers may be suprised that I rank these so high, but these little gems are very close to my heart. Completely different, each one of them is a world on its own.

Here, my favorite version comes from the young British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor.

Grosvenor is also a part of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists.

4. Piano Concertos – Krystian Zimerman

Chopin Piano Concertos No. 1 & 2 Krystian Zimerman Polish Festival Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 1999

The legendary Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman, himself also winner of the famous Chopin competition, has recorded the concertos twice. Once with the LA Philharmonic under Giulini in the late 1980s. Knowing that Zimerman is one of the most perfectionist pianists out there, if he records something twice, you can be sure, he does it for a reason.

This second recording from 1999 with a hand-picked “Polish Festival Orchestra”, and while the Giulini recording is already excellent, this one really is a true benchmark.

A must have.

My rating: 5 stars

5. Ballades / Barcarolle – Krystian Zimerman

Chopin 4 Balladen Barcarolle Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Grammophon 1988

Zimerman (also one of my Top 10 Favorite Classical pianists) is also my recording of choice for the Ballades.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Zimerman perform some of these live, including the beautiful Barcarolle that you’ll also find on this outstanding 1988 album. Don’t miss it.

My rating: 5 stars

6. Etudes – Pollini

Chopin Etudes Maurizio Pollini Deutsche Grammophon

A Chopin list without Maurizio Pollini wouldn’t be complete. I could have easily mentioned him for the Preludes, and several of his other Chopin recordings are legendary. He, like Blechacz, Zimerman above and Argerich below, is also a winner of the Warsaw piano competition (Not that this competition is held only every 5 years, winning it is truly a big deal).

The Etudes are technically extremely challenging. Apparently even a true master like Pollini needed cuts in recording (hundreds of them if you believe some reports). In spite of this piecemeal type recording, the result is just fantastic, and can be described with only one word: fantastic.

Perahia would have been a nice alternative, but Pollini really remains the reference.

My rating: 5 stars

7. Argerich Legendary Chopin

Martha Argerich The Legendary 1965 Chopin Recording Emi

Marta Argerich won the Chopin Competion 5 years after Pollini.

This was one of her first recordings. You will never hear Chopin’s sonata no. 3 played more passionately. Argerich (another member of my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists) is in a way the complete opposite of Pollini. Pollini is typically the perfectionist, rational architect, and Argerich is known for her energy and fire. Check out her recording of the piano concertos for another example of her extraordinary talent.

My rating: 4 stars

8. Cello Sonata – Argerich / Rostropovich

Chopin Cello sonata op. 65 Polonaise op. 3 Schumann Adagio & Allegro op. 70 Mstislav Rostropovich Martha Argerich Deutsche Grammophon

Chopin really isn’t well known for his chamber music. So I must admit that until recently I only knew one recording of this, by Sol Gabetta. In preparation of this blog post I checked out several versions, and end up again with the great Martha Argerich, joined here by the cello giant, Mstislav Rostropovich.

My rating: 4 stars (excellent playing, but the music is not as essential as the piano pieces)

9. Mazurkas – Rubinstein

No Chopin list can be complete without the name that is most closely associated with this composer: Artur Rubinstein.

This recommendation is following up to a recommendation in the forum thread that I should check out his earlier recordings. I ended up liking this version most:

Great Pianists Rubinstein Frederic Chopin Mazurkas 1938-1939 Naxos

Yes, it truly is a historic pre-war recording, but the playing really makes up for it. I usually didn’t care so much about these little dances, but Rubinstein really gives these little pieces such a very special meaning, it is a pleasure to listen to.

My rating: 4 stars

10. The Complete Chopin Edition on Deutsche Grammophon

Deutsche Grammophon Complete Chopin Edition 2009

I typically don’t recommend box sets. Even the better ones are typically hit and miss, as they are typically just “recycling” of older catalog material.

But you probably have noticed the large number of yellow covers above, and DG really did a great job on this 17 CD box.

You’ll get the Zimerman piano concertos in the Polish Festival version, the Ballades again by Zimerman, the Pollini etudes, and the Nocturnes by Maria João Pires (my second favorite after Moravec), the Preludes by Blechacz, and the Cello Sonata by Argerich

In a way, you could think that for this blog post pretty much all I did was copy this box set. Well, actually no, I got all of these albums individually over many years (and also I’m not getting any incentive from DG here). But I’m truly impressed by the selection that DG did here (having all this in their archives obviously helped).

On top, you’ll also get the Mazurkas and Valses well played by Vladimir Ashkenazy, some individual pieces with Anatol Ugorsky, the Scherzos by Pollini again, and the piano sonatas by Lilya Zilberstein and Pollini again.

So if you want to kick-off your Chopin journey, this box really is all you need for a start with truly outstanding recordings.

My rating: 5 stars

 

You can find the recordings either in the respective original blog post or here:

Concertos / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical) (note that Presto has a special offer on Zimerman recordings until the end of 2017)

Ballades / Zimerman: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Etudes / Pollini: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich Legendary 1965 recording: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Argerich Rostropovich Cello Sonatas: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Chopin Mazurkas Rubinstein here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

The Complete Chopin Edition here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Krystian Zimerman plays Schubert sonatas

Krystian Zimerman

Krystian Zimerman is a living legend.

He is without doubt one of our most important pianists of the 20th and 21st centuries, and has produced a huge number of reference recordings.

I only saw him live once, couple of years ago in Lucerne, and was utterly impressed with his Chopin.

He obviously features in my Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists, and when I heard that he’s about to release his first solo album since 1994 (!) I really couldn’t wait for it.

Franz Schubert’s late sonatas

And then he plays Schubert! D959 and D960!

The late piano sonatas are among my absolutely preferred works of him  (together with the late chamber works), and I’ve even written a blog post comparing 11 versions of D959. At the time, I selected Perahia, Brendel, and Uchida as my reference versions.

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas D959 and 960 – Krystian Zimerman (DG2017)

Franz Schubert Krystian Zimerman Piano Sonatas D959 & D960 Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

So, maybe it is a mistake to get too excited upfront. I really expected miracles here. I mean, take his Chopin Ballades, his Debussy, his Lutoslawski, his Brahms 1, his Liszt b-minor sonata. All miracles.

So you will have guess by now, that I was underwhelmed here.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a very fine recording. Obviously. It’s Zimerman after all. And he really makes these recordings very much his own.

But I’ve now played them over and over again, and I’m still waiting for the “wow”. I simply doesn’t come. I still don’t know what it is. Is it his rubato, his tempi? Is it maybe “too romantic”? I really don’t know.

There are so many subleties in his recording that I all appreciate individually. But the total doesn’t work for me. Well, hold on, “doesn’t work” is a silly way of saying I’m not blown away. It really all boils down to expectations.

Check it out, you have to, this is Zimerman after all. And I won’t be surprised if many of you disagree with my very personal opinion here. But for the moment, I’ll stick with the “cleaner” versions of Brendel and Uchida.

What do you think? I really appreciate your feedback here!

My rating: 4 stars

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

UPDATE Oct 1st, 2017: the French magazine Classica is less hesitant and gives this album a “CHOC”, i.e. 5 stars.

UPDATE Oct 7, 2017: Gramophone also is fully convinced, giving this album a “recording of the month” for October. The only more critical review I’ve seen so far is by Elvire James on the French site Classiquenews.com, saying this album has nothing new to offer. Well I really wouln’t go as far as that.

UPDATE Oct 9, 2017: ClassicsToday Jed Distler is in the same range as my rating, with an 8 out of 10 points, quoting some micromanaging.

Your turn to judge! Let me know what you think.

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.

 

Another Disappointing New Release by Seong-Jin Cho

Seong-Jin Cho

Cho is the winner of last years Warsaw Chopin competition, that in the past used to launch piano legends, e.g. Krystian Zimerman, or Martha Argerich.

However, in my previous review of his debut recording, I already was quite surprised by the choice of last years jury.

And unfortunately, his latest release, a full Chopin album with the piano concerto no. 1 and the ballades, confirms my disappointment.

Chopin: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades – Seong-Jin Cho (Deutsche Grammophon 2016)

Let’s start with the good part. Piano concerto no. 1 is an overall convincing performance. He uses a lot of rubato, which I really like in Chopin, the brilliant parts are brilliant as expected, but the slower parts also get a well reflected treatment.

We are clearly not yet beating Zimerman’s both recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, but at least this is interesting and worth listening to.

The LSO under Gianandrea Noseda are a quite powerful partner. Let’s face it, the Chopin piano concertos aren’t the most satisfying material for orchestras, they often are nothing more than “background” for the soloist. But their playing here cannot be faulted.

Chopin: PIano Concerto No. 1 / Ballades Seong-Jin Cho, London Symphony Orchestra, Giandandrea Noseda Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/96

The Ballades

The Chopin ballades are just amazingly beautiful. My favorite version is again, Zimerman, as already featured in my Top 10 Classical Pianists posts. Another favorite of mine, Murray Perahia, is also exceptional.

Getting to Cho, something is just wrong. The slow parts are often just plain boring, I can’t even fully put my finger on it.

When it gets fast, like after 2 min into Ballade No. 2 he becomes impressive, but more technically than musically, unfortunately.

It is very clear that Cho has amazing technical reserves that are barely even challenged here in these works. Maybe he would be perfect for Liszt, but here in the simple ballades, what you really need are nuances, and these are missing to my simple ear.

It pains my heart writing this, but I don’t think Cho is up there with his peers from previous competitions.

Let me know what you think, do you agree? Disagree? Think I’m completely nuts? Please share your comments.

My rating: 3 stars

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

UPDATE January 5, 2016: By now, some other reviewers have had more positive opinions than me about this album, I’d say the general consensus is around 4 stars. Doesn’t change my personal rating but I wanted to flag this to ensure you get a balanced view.

 

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)

Alice in Grieg’s Wonderland

The usual excuses first

I’ve been crazy busy the last weeks being home on average about 1-2 nights per week, the rest full of business and private travel. Therefore, my blog writing has suffered quite a bit.

And this is not because of a lack of interesting new albums to write about. Well, on Jazz, it partially is, while I do have two reviews upcoming, this site may be a bit disappointing for you currently if you’re more in to Jazz than Classical music. Hope you bear with me.

But with regards to classical, there have been a number of interesting albums released recently, all of which I have planned to write about, including Andreas Staier’s new Schubert Trios, Benjamin Grosvenor’s new release, Adam Laloum getting into Schumann and Schubert, the Chiaroscuro Quartet playing Hadyn, the Belcea Quartet playing Brahms, etc. etc.

OK, so the paragraph above should put enough pressure on me to actually write all these reviews in the next weeks, where hopefully my travel activity should be a bit more measured.

Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott is a young pianist (born 1988) of German and Japanese origin. She’s recorded already quite a number of albums but the only one I have had on my radar screen so far is her recording of the Complete Waltzes by Chopin. I kind of liked that album, but then again the waltzes are about my least favorite Chopin works relatively speaking, so I didn’t spend much time on it.

Wonderland

Honestly, the title of her latest album put me off a little bit, the wordplay is just a little bit too obvious. But then again, you don’t buy a book for it’s cover, and the same logic should apply for classical albums.

Wonderland Grieg Piano Concerto Lyric Pieces Alice Sara Ott Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/48

And I’m happy I went further, because this recording of the piano concerto is really worth it.

I’ve previously written about Javier Perianes who did a similar coupling of the piano concerto with the Lyric pieces (see my review here), and this recording, while being quite different, is really at the same level.

If you want to compare the two, Perianes is probably the more energetic, Ott with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the BR symphony takes a more lyrical approach. You’ll get lots of rubato (the concept of “stealing” time to give it back later, i.e. variations of the tempo), with some moments being even extremely slow (already in the opening bars for example).

But unlike the recent recording of the Schumann piano concerto by Melnikov, where I was a bit put off with the slow speed of the third movement, here all slow moments make perfect sense to me. And don’t get me wrong, when the piece needs energy and passion, you’ll get plenty.

Does this version beat my reference version from Leif Ove Andsnes? Well, not exactly, but it is clearly a worthy alternative.

As a “filler”, you don’t get the usual coupling with Schumann, but similar to Perianes, you get a selection of the Lyric pieces, and given that these are little gems, they are very much worth having. To lighten things up a bit more, you even get piano transcriptions of Grieg’s most famous piece, Peer Gynt, in the mix.

My rating: 4 stars

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