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)

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)

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).