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.

My Favorite Winterreise by Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier

Lieder

Lied” is a German word that literally just means song. Interestingly enough, the word “Lied” or the plural, “Lieder“, has made it’s way into the English language, at least for those interested in 19th century classical music.

In German, there is another word, Kunstlied, literally Art Song, that differentiates this particular category from anyother Lied, which could be anything from a childrens lullaby to Justin Bieber’s latest hit.

This art form really peaked in the romantic times of the 19th century. People at the time loved romantic literature, romantic poems, and obviously romantic music. The latter followed what is commonly known as Wiener Klassik.

What is so special about the Kunstlied, is the combination of masterful composing by greats like Schumann or Schubert, and the great poetry of Goethe, Schiller and others. Obviously, if you don’t speak German, you’ll have to rely on your booklet or internet translation of the lyrics. I strongly recommend you do, the text often is breathtakingly beautiful.

If I’m not mistaken, I haven’t yet written about any Lied recording on my blog. This is because I really dived into this art form only rather recently, and am still in the process of discovery. It is a gratifying journey, as this, together with chamber and piano music, is where my beloved Franz Schubert really shines.

Schubert’s Winterreise

Winterreise is one of the best known song cycles. This blog post was triggered by a post I read yesterday by fellow blogger The Well Tempered Ear (which you should check out).

Winterreise just is the perfect music for these cold winter days (assuming you’re somewhere in the Northern hemisphere). Here you really need to follow the lyrics. These 24 songs are based on poems by a lesser known poet, Wilhelm Müller, and losely tells a story of a wayfarer in Winter. Just make sure you put on the fireplace (if you have one) or turn on the heating, get a nice cup of your favorite hot beverage, and start listening to the journey. You’ll be glad you’re inside in the warm.

My Favorite Version: Christoph Prégardien with Andreas Staier (Teldec/Warner Classics 1997)

As said above, I am still at the beginning of my discovery of the Schubert song cycles, but I’ve been through already quite a number of versions of the Winterreise. Probably every great tenor of this world has recorded it, and sticking to just one version is pretty much impossible. I’m pretty sure I’ll have future posts on other versions coming.

Schubert: Die Winterreise - Christoph Prégardien - Andreas Staier Warner Classics

So why this one now? Well, it is just the intricate balance of Prégardien, one of the best tenors of our time, and Andreas Staier’s beautiful and nuanced Fortepiano.

Most of the recordings obviously are with modern Steinways. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of these (and still aspire to own one in the future). But for a work written in 1827, it pays off to get the more subtle sound of a fortepiano. This gets you to a whole new level of transparency. A must have.

My rating: 5 stars

 

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

 

P.S. This will most likely be the last post of the year, as I’m looking forward to some relaxing days with the family over the Christmas holidays.

I thank all my readers for their continued interest in my blog, and wish all of you a great holiday break, wherever you are in the world!

Schubert: A Journey Through 11 Versions of Schubert’s Piano Sonata D959

The Cross Eyed Pianist

Sometimes, as a blogger, you may feel a bit alone. With my rather niche topic of Jazz and Classical music, I really don’t have that many people to exchange ideas with in my immediate surroundings, as most of my friends and family don’t care enough about this topic (my mother-in-law is the exception, she is a loyal reader, even if she often disagrees with my opinions).

Luckily, on the internet, you’ll be able to find like-minded people for every kind of interest, as small as it may be. I’ve met people virtually on several discussion forums and via this blog that I feel I have very compatible musical tastes.

And obviously then, there are the other bloggers. You can find on this blog the long list of all blogs I follow (at least those on WordPress), but some are really outstanding, and to be fair, much better than my little enterprise here.

One blog I follow very closely is Frances Wilson’s The Cross Eyed Pianist. Well, she’s got an advantage over me, she’s an actual pianist (my piano hasn’t been touched for over a year now, shame on me). I strongly recommend you check her out.

Schubert’s Late Piano Sonatas

I’ve mentioned Franz Schubert several times now on this blog, as I’m a big fan.

Unfortunately he died way too young, so there is only a number of categories I really admire in Schubert. Not necessarily his symphonies (see my comment on his last symphony here), but his Lieder (still only getting into them), his amazing chamber works (see here and here among others), and obviously, his piano music, which was his very own instrument.

I’ve previously written about David Fray’s beautiful album, as well as Andras Schiff’s recent recording on a fortepiano. Note that you can always click on the composer link on the right hand side of this blog to see all my articles on a given composer.

But I’ve not fully talked about the 3 masterpieces of his late piano sonatas, D958-960, which really give you a glimpse of what Schubert could have achieved had he lived longer. These were all recorded in his last year alive, at the tender age of 31. Imagine Beethoven dying after the Moonlight, no Waldstein, no Appassionata, no Hammerklavier!

To get back to Frances Wilson, what trigger this blog post was her excellent article on Schuberts D959 in A-Major, which not only inspired me to write this post, but also the title.

Frances Wilson and others are the reason why I don’t write a lot about the works themselves on my blog, these others are so much more talented.

So let me focus on what I typically tend to write about, which is “reviewing” (or probably rather commenting) the recorded versions of these pieces.

10 versions…

I often get asked, which is the “best version” of a classical piece. If I’d be honest, I cannot answer this. Most classical works have been recorded hundreds of times, and comparing them all is just really not feasible. Gramophone and Classica try, and have monthly articles around individual works where they try to achieve this, but even these traditional magazines with their decades of experience usually limit themselves to a smaller number of versions (or I guess, leverage their archived reviews).

So, as I said inspired by Wilson’s article, I wanted to write about the best version of Schuberts D959 I have on my hard disk, plus Paul Lewis from Qobuz (I could have included all versions available on Qobuz streaming, but then you wouldn’t read another blog post from me for a least 3 years)

I have a total of 10 versions (thanks to years spend on meta-tagging I can actually now easily find them):

  • Leif Ove Andsnes
  • Alfred Brendel
  • Martin Helmchen
  • Paul Lewis
  • Wilhelm Kempff
  • Radu Lupu
  • Murray Perahia
  • Arthur Schnabel
  • Andreas Staier
  • Mitsuko Uchida

You’ll noticed Andsnes and Perahia from my Top 10 Classical Pianists I just published, actually, the preparation for this review triggered the idea of that post.

I’m not going to review all 10 versions here in detail, but just highlight those that really stood out to me (which is tough, because there wasn’t really a negative outlier in this list.

… and not a single winner

I’ll name 3 in detail here, and honestly, I’m not going to name my winner, as it is just impossible.

 

Alfred Brendel

Schubert: The Last Three Piano Sonatas Three Piano Pieces D 958 959 960 946 Alfred Brendel Philips

This was my first ever version, and I can still count it among the best out there. Brendel is an extremely intellectual pianist, and he’s probably one of the key people who put Schubert’s piano music on the world stage. I haven’t included him in my Top 10 pianist list, as I’m not a universal fan of his playing, but for Schubert, he really is among the top references.

 

Murray Perahia

 

Perahia actually made it into my Top 10 list. He’s a pianist I admire from Bach to romantic repertoire, he always seems to get it right. Same here, this is really worth checking out.

And, last but absolutely NOT least,

 

Mitsuko Uchida

Mitsuko Uchida plays Schubert

I’ve already previously mentioned her in my article about Andras Schiff, she absolutely remains among my favorite versions of this work.

She has such a light, delicate and beautiful touch. To me Schubert’s piano music is even closer to Mozart than to Beethoven, even if Schubert was a great admirer of the latter. Uchida is one of the best Mozart players we have, and approaching Schubert in Mozart style really feels right.

My rating for all 3: 5 stars

Two lessons learned here:

  1. Never ask for “THE BEST” version of a certain work. It just doens’t exist, you’ll almost always find several versions that are each outstanding in their own way
  2. I’ll almost certainly not do another of those huge comparisions in the near future, they are just so time consuming. I’ll leave that to the professionals. It was fun though.

As usual, I’d be interested in your opinion, are there other versions out there?

Frances mentioned Goode and Pires, which I both haven’t heard, anything else out there?

You can find the albums here:

Alfred Brendel: here (Qobuz)

Perahia: here (Qobuz)

Mitsuko Uchida: here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical)

Christoph von Dohnányi – A Totally Underrated Conductor

Christoph von Dohnányi

Why are conductors get so much more well known that others? The classical music industry has it’s own mechanisms of getting attention. I’m not sure I’ve fully understood them yet.

In any case, let me take a recent release by German conductor Christoph von Dohnányi as trigger to write about this conductor I really like a lot, but probably isn’t as famous as he could (or should?) be?

Von Dohnányi, born in Berlin in 1929, started his training as… a lawyer. Yes, he went to law school in Munich before deciding that music was more his thing. Well to be fair, he had some family history, his father Ernst (Ernö) von Dohnányi  was a pianist and composer.

You could assume that  Dohnányi’s talent was rather quickly recognized, given that in his early years he worked with giants like Leonard Bernstein and Georg Solti.

Later on, he became conductor of major orchestras like the Cleveland Orchestra, that Georges Szell had really turned into a world class ensemble, and the Philharmonia orchestra, of Karajan and Klemperer fame.

He also worked with many other leading orchestras, be it in Boston, New York, Paris, or Vienna.

His recording of the Mendelssohn symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic are still among my absolute favorite versions, especially for no. 3 and 4.

Nevertheless, I as said initially, I don’t see his name pop up as often as you think as one of the great conductors of our time.

Schubert’s Symphonies

I’ve said it before, I’m not a big fan of Schubert’s symphonies in general. OK, there is the beautiful Unfinished, but anything before that to me is only of passing interest. On the other hand, Schubert obviously was an absolute genius for chamber music (e.g. here, and here), piano music (see this review), or the Lied. Unfortunately, he passed away way too early. You can only wonder what Schubert’s music would have been had he reached the age of Beethoven or Brahms.

I also have somehow a difficult connection to his so called Great Symphony, or no. 9 in C-major.

Side note: Actually C-major is a really boring key. It’s the one you play on a piano if you just leave out all the black keys. By musicologists and composers it is often described as noble and majestic. I personally like minor key quite a bit more. But let’s close the parenthesis here.

What really annoys me (well that’s a strong word) about Schubert’s symphony no. 9 is what Robert Schumann called the Himmlische Längen (heavenly length) of this work, there are just some repetitions too many for me.

But that minor annoyance set apart, it is still a beautiful piece of music.

Especially when it get’s played by a conductor I really like…..

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 – Live in Concert – Christoph von Dohnányi – Philharmonia Orchestra (Signum Classics 2016)

 

Schubert: Symphony No. 9 Live In Concert Christoph von Dohnanyi Philharmonia Orchestra Signum Classics

Another parenthesis here: what do you plan to do when you’re about to turn 87 years old? Still working? Probably not.

Well, not so for our hero of the story here, who recorded this beautiful album at the age of 86, in a live performance.

What do I like about this recording?

Well, in a nutshell it has just the right balance of gravitas and lightness that this work needs. You have the big sound of a major orchestra, but there is never anything static about it, always positive tension, and most of all, a lot of fun and joyfulness.

I suggest you read this insightful interview with the conductor about this particular recording here on Prestoclassical.

My rating: 4 stars

You can find it here (Qobuz), and here (Signum Records)