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.

 

Mozart’s C-minor Mass: A New Reference by Masaaki Suzuki

Masaaki Suzuki and the Bach Collegium Japan

Can a Japanese ensemble play Bach? Of course they can, and even at an astonishing level.

I’ve yet to hear a recording with Suzuki and his Bach collegium Japan that wasn’t worth checking out at least.

The only thing you can sometimes say about their recordings is that they can be a bit too polished, too perfectionist, and therefore a bit too well behaved.

Moving from Bach to Mozart, they already released a quite beautiful recording of the requiem in 2014.

The C-Minor Mass

I’ve written previously about this absolute masterpiece by Mozart, and recommended Louis Langrées version, and Herreweghe’s classic. This recommendation is still valid,  however, the Japanese really throw in a new very serious competitor.

Mozart: Great Mass in c-minor / Exsultate Jubilate – Masaaki Suzuki – Bach Collegium Japan –  Carolyn Sampson – Olivia Vermeulen – Makoto Sakurata – Christian Immler (BIS 2016)

What is spectacular about this album is the sheer transparency. The typical precision of the Bach Collegium really helps illuminate every little detail in the recording.

The typical outstanding recording quality by BIS obvously helps.

Mozart: Great Mass in C-Minor Exsultate Jubilate Masaaki Suzuki Bach Collegium Japan BIS 2016 24/96

This really draws you into the work, and makes it sound like something new, that you’ve never heard before.

Of the two female singers, while I like Olivia Vermeulen, Carolyn Sampson is even more gorgeous. Listen to her in the Et Incarnatus Est, and it really will make you cry. Such a beauty!

The Exsultate Jubilate K165 in contrast is nice, but clearly a work of a very young Mozart (he was 17 when he wrote it). You won’t regret getting it, but we’re far away from the masterpiece that is the K427.

In summary, will this kick Herrweghe off the throne? Well, not exactly, but in my opinion he gets to share the top position from now on.

Check it out!

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (eclassical)

UPDATE December 2, 2016: In the latest December issue, Gramophone agrees, giving it an Editor’s Choice and calling it one of the best period instrument choices.

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)

Easter Time Is Coming Up Soon – And With It The Magnificent Matthew Passion

Seasonal Music For Easter

Easter time is coming. At least over here in Europe, that means most shops fill up with chocolate eggs and bunnies. Nothing wrong with that.

But while I’m not religious, there are two pieces of music that are intrinsically linked for me to this time of the year. Both essentially tell the same story, the well-known biblical story of the last days of Jesus Christ as accounted for in the gospels of John and Matthew respectively.

At yes, this will be yet another blog post about Bach. Sorry for this, but he put both of these accounts into such beautiful music that it really doesn’t matter what religion you follow (or if at all), both of these works, the BWVs 245 and 244, respectively the Johannes-Passion and Matthäus-Passion, are among the most outstanding musical works ever written.

I’ll write about the St John Passion later, it is the possibly slightly less well-known of the two.

St Matthew Passion BWV244

But let me start with the St Matthew Passion, for the simple reason that I just spent a lot of money on a concert ticket. I’ll have the pleasure in a couple of weeks to see John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir live playing this masterpiece.

I highly encourage you to seek this concert out if you live in Europe, they are touring several countries starting with Valencia, Spain. I can guarantee this to be an outstanding concert experience by one of the greatest Bach interpreters and choirs ever. Check out the tour dates here. It also includes the great Mark Padmore as Evangelist.

I’ll be certainly writing about this concert experience here.

This work is also of historical importance, as its revival in the 19th century by Mendelssohn triggered also a much more general appreciation of Bach as the musical genius he truly was.

St Matthew’s Passion – John Butt – Dunedin Consort

Let me talk about another outstanding Bach interpreter here. I’ve written about John Butt and the Dunedin Consort several times already, regarding the Mozart Requiem, Händel’s Messiah, and more recently on the Brandenburg concertos.

If you believe Gramophone Magazine, he rarely misses a recording, having received a number of Gramophone Editor’s choices and Awards. Obviously, one needs to be a bit careful as Gramophone often suffers from a certain anglophilia in their reviews, and local artists more often than not get rather favorable reviews.

However, in this particular case, I fully concur with Gramophone’s opinion, whatever John Butt and his Dunedin Consort touch is usually worth checking out. Furthermore, being recorded on the Linn label (of legendary turntable fame), these recordings are what is often to referred as audiophile.

Matthew Passion Dunedin Consort John Butt Linnrecords 24 88

A word of advice, even if the story may be familiar to you if you are Christian, take the booklet and follow the lyrics (even better if you speak German obviously). It is just outstanding how much Bach’s music reflects the feeling of what is going on at any time of the 2h18, and really helps absorbing this masterpiece better.

This is particularly true in the very last Chorus Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder (we sit down in tears). If this track doesn’t touch your emotions, I don’t know what does.

The Dunedin’s version brings an astounding amount of clarity to the reading. This doesn’t mean it is lightweight, but it is played with beautiful transparency. Nicely enough, although none of the singers are German, their pronunciation of the text is exceptional.

 

Now is John Butt’s version the one and only to have for Matthew? Certainly not. There are other great versions out there that are worth checking out, from Gardiner’s and Herreweghe’s classic accounts in the late 1980s, via Kuijken and Suzuki, to the recent controversial but thought-provoking René Jacobs reading.

And although you’ll have noticed that I’m a big fan of historically informed practice, the legendary version of Karajan, with Gundola Janowitz, Christa Ludwig, Peter Schreier and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is worth checking out for the beautiful singing (although the tempi are really too slow for my ears with Kommt Ihr Töchter taking a full 9:21 vs. 6:38 with the Dunedins).

But overall the Dunedin version is an excellent starting point for exploring this masterpiece.

 

My rating: 5 stars

You can find it here (Linn Records) or here (Prestoclassical)