Tag Archives: Igor Levit

Musicophile’s Top 10 Favorite Classical Pianists

Top 10 and Best-Ofs

I don’t do top 10 lists often. I probably should to them more often, as if you’re a blogger you know that they tend to generate higher than average traffic, somehow either Google or more likely the average reader tends to like this kind of lists (and I must admit, I tend to click on other peoples “best of lists” as well), but I usually prefer to write about individual albums instead.

My Personal Top 10 Pianists

That said, the idea for this particular blog post came along while doing some comparative listening for a future blog post on Schubert’s piano sonatas. I noticed I always keep going back to a certain number of pianists, that I love and respect, and that usually always have something to say.

Obviously, this list is highly subjective. This is not supposed to be “Great pianists of the century” or Top 100 pianists of all times, you’ll find plenty of those on the internet already.

So obviously, there will be great names missing, Schnabel, Arrau, Rubinstein, Brendel, Trifonov, etc. etc. etc.

I’ll be listing them in alphabetical order, as there is absolutely no way I’ll try to rank them.

So, here we go:

  • Leif Ove Andsnes

Not very suprisingly, given that I’ve already listed him here for my all time favorite version of Grieg’s piano concerto, and have praised his recent Beethoven cycle with the Chamber orchestra of Europe.

I’ve seen him live playing Beethoven’s concerti 2-4 in a row, without a conductor. An amazing experience.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that Andsnes has also recorded an excellent version of Rachmaninov’s piano concertos with Antonio Pappano, which I have yet to review.

Rachmaninov Complete Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes London Symphony Orchestra Berliner Philharmoniker Antonio Pappano Warner Classics

I guess that covers such a large range of the romantic piano concertos that it is pretty clear why I’m choosing him. Note I could have mentioned many other beautiful recordings, including solo piano or chamber music.

 

  • Martha Argerich

Well I said I’m not going to rank the pianists, but Martha clearly makes it all the way to the top of the list.

With her, you can really start at the beginning, with her legendary debut album following her winning the 1965 Warsaw Chopin competition. 

Or go to a very recent recording around 50 years later of Argerich playing Mozart’s concertos, as mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Or, for the sake of it, pretty much everything she has recorded in between. The only exception are some of the live recordings from her beloved Lugano festival, not all of them are necessarily must haves. But beyond that, you can be sure that her energy to enchant you!

Here is another example:

Martha Argerich Rachmaninov 3 Tchaikovsky 1 Riccardo Chailly Kirill Kondrashin

There are several “complete”, “best of”  and “collection” boxes out there. All are highly recommended.

 

  • Rafal Blechacz

Together with Benjamin Grosvenor and Igor Levit, among the youngest on this lists.

I had to list him already for his outstanding Chopin Préludes, as reviewed previously.

Another recording I can recommend is his Debussy and Szymanowksi album from 2012.

Debussy Szymanowksi Rafal Blechacz Deusche Grammophone 2012

I’ve seen him live play Chopin and Szymanowski, and I was really impressed by this timid young man and the intimacy of his playing. Somebody to watch.

 

  • Ronald Brautigam

Playing on an “authentic” piano that sounds like the composer would have heard the piece is a relatively recent trend, as techniques in the reconstruction of the fortepiano, and alongside the specific playing skills for these instruments have evolved.

I’ve already mentioned his beautiful version of Mendelssohn’s Lieder Ohne Worte (review of part I here, part II here).

However, what I recommend most often is his outstanding complete Beethoven sonata cycle. Obviously this doesn’t replace the efforts on modern piano from Schnabel to today, but you really owe it to yourself to discover how Beethoven can sound on a piano of that time, exceptionally well played by this amazing artist.

7318599920009_600

 

  • Emil Gilels

Why Gilels as a representative of the great pianists of the 1950s-70s, and not Rubinstein, or Richter, or Horowitz?

Well, honestly, all of them would have deserved to be listed here. I’m just having a very special attraction to his Brahms concertos, be it with Jochum (reviewed here) or with Fritz Reiner and the CSO.

Another album that is his outstanding recording of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, an all time classic.

 

Edvard Grieg Lyric Pieces Emil Gilels Deutsche Grammophon 24 96

 

  • Benjamin Grosvenor

I’ve just recently praised his latest album, Homages (review here), and given 5 stars to his Chopin Liszt Ravel album here. He was also nominated for the Gramophone awards for his album Dances in 2015, which he should have won (IMHO).

Benjamin Grosvenor Dances Decca Classics

He is probably the youngest of my list (note to self, do some fact checking), and among his few recordings, all are just amazing. This is one of the most outstanding talents I’m aware of.

 

  • Igor Levit

Regular readers of my blog know that I’ve praised this great young artist several times already.

Most lately for his Gramophone Album of the Year: Bach / Beethoven /Rzewski, see here for my review, and here as well, as well as in my article about the top 5 classical albums of 2015.

Back in 2015, his Bach Partitas album was also nominated by Gramophone for an Award in the Instrumental category.

But there is one album I haven’t mentioned yet on my blog, which I also like very much, his debut on Sony.

And no, he didn’t start easy, he tackled immediately Beethoven’s late piano sonatas.

Igor Levit Beethoven The Late Piano Sonatas Sony Classical 24 96 2015

And how! This is not only technically impressive (the Hammerklavier always is) but such a high level of musicality. Again, watch this artist!

 

  • Ivan Moravec

Very simply, for the most beautiful Chopin Nocturne recording there is, see my review here. But basically, his other Chopin is also excellent. I actually don’t have any recording from other composers by him. I’ll investigate!

Ivan Moravec Chopin Nocturnes

 

  • Murray Perahia

No idea why I haven’t written more about Perahia. I’ve mentioned him as one of my favorite Goldberg players, and his Bach in general is excellent (will need to write about his new French suites at some point).

But fundamentally, this is one of the pianists that really adds new insights to whatever he touches. Never flashy, never show-off, but always nuanced.

As an example, let me take his Schumann, which is among the best recordings I know of these little gems:

Schumann: Davidsbündlertänze, Fantasiestücke Murray Perahia CBS Sony

 

  • Krystian Zimerman

Again, an artist I haven’t mentioned enough. A living legend to me, winner of the 1975 Chopin competition in Warsaw (he’s the third from this illustrous list, together with Argerich and Blechacz).

Which album to mention? Usually he records relatively few albums, so you can pretty much trust them to be top notch in general.

My preferred is probably his Chopin Ballades:

Chopin: 4 Ballades, Barcarolle, Fantasie Krystian Zimerman Deutsche Gramophon

I’ve heard him play live couple of years ago, including the Barcarolle. He maybe the most intellectual pianist I’m aware of, and you can hear the cerebral approach he takes. That said, this isn’t to say that his music isn’t full of emotion.

I could also have mentioned his Chopin piano concerto recordings, be it with the LA Phil or the Polish Festival orchestra, both are among the best there is for these works.

 

What do You think?

So, here we go. What do you think? Do you agree, disagree? Did I miss anybody (I’m sure I did, with this artificial cut off of 10). Please let me know?

You can find the albums mentioned here in the respective links to previous posts, or below:

 

Gramophone Awards 2016 – And The Winners Are……

The Gods have spoken

Or to be more precise, the jury at Gramophone has today officially published the winners in each category.

So, how did my little Crystal Ball work this year?

Baroque Instrumental

Here I forecasted a win for Rachel Podger’s Rosary sonatas.

Gramophone seemed to agree. Congratulations to Mrs Podger, well deserved!

Biber: Rosary Sonatas - Rachel Podger Channel Classics 2016 DSD

Baroque Vocal

As documented here, my vote went to Sebastian Daucé.

However, I’m perfectly supportive of the winner as well, congratulations to Les Arts Florissants for their winning Monteverdi album!

Monteverdi: Madrigali vol. 1 Cremona Paul Agnew Les Arts Florissants 2016

 

Chamber

While my vote would have been for the Quatuor Ebène, the jury went for the Heath Quartet’s Tippett album. Ok, no comment here, it’s just not my cup of tea.

Tippett String Quartets Heath Quartet Wigmore Hall Live

Choral

I just noticed I completely forgot to even mention this section in  my previous posts, don’t know what happened here. Well, anyhow, here’s the winner. I haven’t heard it, so no comment from my side.

Schönberg Gurrelieder Markus Stenz Gurrelieder Hyperion

Concerto

As written here, I’d have voted for Trifonov, but the Gramophone Jury liked Vilde Frang’s Britten and Korngold better. Congrats to Mrs Frang, and I’ll leave it at this, given that this album doesn’t really speak to me.

Britten/Korngold Violin Concertos James Gaffigan Frankfurt Radio Symphony James Gaffigan

Contemporary

I didn’t write about this section at all as I’m not really qualified, however, I must admit the winner looks interesting enough that I’ll check it out in more detail:

 

Hans Abrahamsen : Let me tell you Barbara Hannigan Andris Nelsons Winter & Winter

 

Early Music

Again a section I completely ignored in my posts.

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I’ll take time to check this out formally, looks certainly interesting

Instrumental

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

Now we’re back in familiar territory, and while I would have appreciated the recognition for Chamayou’s Ravel, Levit very much deserves this price IMHO.

Opera

My coverage of the Opera section was a bit light,  but at least my prediction of the winning album was correct:

Verdi: Aida Pappanis Anja Harteros Jonas Kaufmann

This album really is a must-have.

Orchestral

Very interestingly, here I correctly predicted the winner without even having actively previously listened to any of the nominated albums. Congratulations to Andris Nelsons!

Shostakovich Symphony No. 10 Andris Nelson Boston Symphony Orchestra Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24 96

Recital

Yes, she did it! As I was hoping, Sabine Devieilhe wins in her category. Couldn’t agree more!!!!

Mozart: The Weber Sisters Sabine Devielhe Raphael Pichon Pgymalion Erato 2015

Solo Vocal

This is another section I completely skipped in my blog post.

For reference, here’s the winning album:

Néère - Hahn, Duparc, Chausson - Véronique Gens Alpha

I really like Véronique Gens, but had only very briefly sampled this album, I’ll make sure to give it a proper listen now.

Summary

Let me virtually brag a bit (sorry!) and say that my crystal ball did a pretty good job this year. Out of 8 categories I wrote about, I got 5 “right”. Not a bad score (insert smiley here). OK, bragging mode off again.

What do you think? Who would you have chosen?

I really appreciate your feedback!

My Reflections on the 2016 Gramophone Awards (Part III): Instrumental

You can find Part I (concerto) and part II (Baroque Vocal) of this blog post here and here

Instrumental

Again, one of my absolute favorite categories, and some beautiful gems this year.

Let’s get right into it:

Bach/Beethoven/Rzewski: Variations – Igor Levit (Sony 2015)

Igor Levit Bach Goldberg Variations Beethoven Diabelli Variations Rzewski The People United Will Never Be Defeated Sony 2015

I’ve already reviewed this fantastic album, by one of the pianists I admire most these days. What else is there to say but “wow”, or 5 stars?

 

Brahms: The Complete Solo Piano Music vol. 3 – Jonathan Plowright (BIS 2016)

Brahms: The Complete Solo Piano Music, vol. 3 - Jonathan Plowright (BIS 2016)

I cannot really comment on this album very much, as BIS has a restriction on streaming albums for the first 6 months I believe, so I wasn’t able to hear more than 30 secs of each track, which really isn’t enough to review.

I must admit, that past releases from Plowright’s Brahms recordings (e.g. Sonata No. 3) were ok, but not so great that I was particularly motivated in purchasing this album blindly.

Plus, I’m not sure if Op. 21 no.2 and the Waltzes are essential Brahms (I love op. 76 and 118 though). Will check back when it frees up for streaming.

 

Grieg: Lyric Pieces – Stephen Hough

Grieg Lyric Pieces Stephen Hough Hyperion 2016

Hyperion is another one of the labels that refuses streaming, but unlike BIS not only for the first 6 months, but permanently. On the one hand, I get the point that artists make peanuts on streaming, so it is not something some labels want to endorse.

I must admit that even though I have a subscription to a lossless streaming services that let’s me listen to any album in full CD quality, when there’s something I really like I usually purchase the album anyhow. And in the few years I had access  to streaming, I got so used to being able to listen to an album fully before buying, that Hyperion is actually losing money with their policy on me. But I guess I’m rather the exception.

Long story short: again, only 30 secs samples available to me. Not enough to judge. First impression is quite positive though. I really like Grieg’s little gems so I may end up buying this anyhow.

 

Ravel: Complete Works For Solo Piano – Bertrand Chamayou

Ravel: Complete Works For Solo Piano - Bertrand Chamayou Erato 2016

This album was my surprise of the year.

As mentioned previously, the so-called French impressionists (Ravel and Debussy) are usually only partially my cup of tea. So I wasn’t particularly excited when this came out, by a young French pianist I’d never heard about.

But then this album received a Gramophone Editor’s Choice AND a Choc from Classica. This really is rarer than you’d think, as my two favorite classical magazines rarely agree (Classica was only lukewarm on the Brahms Plowright above, for example).

So I went and checked it out, and Erato nicely enough IS available for streaming.

And what can I say: I don’t see how you could play these works any more beautifully than what Chamayou does here. Just magic. Go and loose yourself in the magic of the opening Jeux d’eau, take the amazing Gaspard de la Nuit, or even simple stuff like the Haydn inspired Menuet, all is just perfect. Nothing is ever Kitsch or Too Much, this is painted with a very light brush, his style doesn’t remind me of the Impressionism of a Monet, but more of the Pointilism of a Seurat, if you get the analogy.

 

My rating: 5 stars

Eugène Ysaÿe: Sonatas for Solo Violon – Alina Ibragimowa (Hyperion 2016)

Ysaye: Sonatas for solo violin - Alina Ibragimova Hyperion 2016

Let’s make this one quick: I really like Ibragimova, don’t know a lot about Ysaÿe (beyond that he was a Belgian superstar). Thanks to Hyperion’s no streaming policy, this is not likely to change any time soon. I’ve read a lot of positive reviews about this elsewhere, so don’t let my ignorance scare you off.

 

Scarlatti (D): 18 Sonatas – Yevgeny Sudbin (BIS 2016)

Scarlatti: 18 Sonatas - Yevgeny Sudbin BIS 2016

And here we go again, BIS’ no streaming policy will stop me for another couple of months or so to listen to this album.

What I can say is that I’m a big fan of Sudbin, but my expertise on Scarlatti is rather light anyhow, so I wouldn’t take my judgment very seriously even if I had listened to the album.

Be warned, this album also received some “meh” reviews, it’s apparently not everybody’s cup of tea.

 

Conclusion?

You may complain, only two albums I properly bothered to comment about? Well, as a policy I rather shut up where I don’t know what I’m talking about or am unable to properly review.

But in any case, both the Levit and the Chamayou are such exceptional albums, that we’re already very well served here.

So, who will win? 2 days ago Gramophone announced the 3 finalists, namely Levit, Chamayou, and Sudbin.

My prediction: Chamayou will win the category, and I hope Levit will win the “Artist of the Year”, a public poll (I already voted for Mr. Levit, but votes are closed since end of July now).

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback!

 

You can find the albums here:

Levit: http://www.qobuz.com/fr-fr/album/bach-beethoven-rzewski-igor-levit/0886444998161

Brahms Plowright: http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/brahms-the-complete-solo-piano-music-iii.html

Grieg Hough: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA68070

Ravel Chamayou: http://www.qobuz.com/fr-fr/album/ravel-complete-works-for-solo-piano-bertrand-chamayou/0825646026777

Ysaÿe Ibragimova: http://www.hyperion-records.co.uk/dc.asp?dc=D_CDA67993

Scarlatti Sudbin: http://www.eclassical.com/labels/bis/scarlatti-18-sonatas.html

 

 

 

 

 

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)

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?