Víkingur Ólafsson’s Beautiful Bach

Should Bach be romantic?

Let me start by asking the more fundamental question: Should Bach be “allowed” to be played on a contemporary piano?

I personally think Bach wouldn’t have minded. Keyboard instruments were under constant evolution during his time, he was very open to adapting music from one instrument to another (and often did so with his own work). Now, what Bach would have done had he been able to ever play a modern Steinway is a very interesting, if rather theoretical question.

Now, does playing on a modern piano allow you to have a “romantic” sound while playing good old JSB?  Let’s explore this thought with this recently released album.

Víkingur Ólafsson: Johann Sebastian Bach

Víkingur Ólafsson Johann Sebastian Bach Vikingur Olafsson Deutsche Grammophon 2018 24/96

Víkingur Ólafsson is only the second Icelandic musician I know (Silly Bjork jokes, anybody?).

He rose to fame at rather young age with his Philipp Glass album (and being signed by Deutsche Grammophon), now he releases his first venture into Bach.

To give you an example what I mean by “romantic”, is track no. 31, the adagio from BWV974. In a way, this could easily be the slow movement of a Mendelssohn or Schubert work.

Do I mind? Au contraire, I really like this album. It is a very personal approach, a very personal selection of material as well. But it never falls into the trap of being the only thing you’re not allowed to be with Bach, which is boring.

To make this album even more appealing to me, we get yet another piano transcription of one of the violin partitas (see here for my original article on the topic)

And also when you take individual well known works like the excerpts of the Well Tempered Clavier, it is very apparent that Olafsson knows what he’s doing, even compared to famous reference versions.

So to answer my initial question: it’s a very clear yes!

My rating: 4 stars

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

The Legendary Bach Chaconne – My Favorite Keyboard Versions

Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin

If you follow my blog you know I like Bach. A lot. So how come I’ve never written about one of his greatest masterpieces, the sonatas and partitas for solo violin?

Honestly, no idea. Maybe because while I actually really admire the works, listening to solo violin is really an experience, in spite of all the artistic beauty of the composition, is not something I can bring myself to do everyday.

The most famous piece of the 6 works, BWV 1001-1006 is without doubt the Chaconne in D-minor of BWV1004.

It is mind-blowing not only by it’s length (around 14 min), while the average of the other parts is around 5 min only, but also by the amazing harmonic complexity (See below an example with Hillary Hahn.).

 

My favorite version of the original violin work is by the legendary Nathan Milstein (note there’s a mono and stereo version, plus several live recordings), but others, such as Henryk Szeryng, Isabelle Faust, or Rachel Podger, are also highly recommended.

Nathan Milstein Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin EMI 1954-1965

I found this beautiful quote from Joshua Bell about the Chaconne on Wikipedia: “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”. Well, there you go. And I fully agree.

Nevertheless, these works were largely forgotten for a long time and only rediscovered in the late 18th century by Schumann and Brahms.

Which gives me a perfect segue to what I’ll be writing about. The Chaconne, which is actually quite polyphonic (a daunting task on a solo instrument like the violin), has been transcribed for keyboard instruments many times. And I find myself listening to the keyboard transcriptions more often than the violin original (ok, I’m an amateur pianist myself, so I’m probably biased).

Transcription by Johannes Brahms – Jean Rondeau

One of the first transcriptions was actually done by Johannes Brahms himself, and just to make it “easier”, he wrote it for the left hand only.

It’s been played by many great pianists, like the legendary Krystian Zimerman.

My current favorite version of this piece however was released quite recently by French Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau on his album of Bach transcriptions called Imagine.

Jean Rondeau - Bach - Imagine Erato 24/96

Rondeau plays with a lot of insight and passion and a lot of rubato. In many ways, you can feel some of the romanticism of Brahms in this particular version (which probably is just me making things up, as Brahms didn’t compose this after all). The sound of Rondeau’s cembalo is particularly beautiful on this recording. The rest of the album is equally beautiful and highly recommended.

 

Transcription by Federico Busoni – Benjamin Grosvenor

Benjamin Grosvenor Homages (24/96) Decca 2016  

I’ve previously written about the great English pianist Benjamin Grosvenor and his beautiful album Homages. He starts this album with the Busoni transcription. Busoni transcription really transforms this solo piece into the sound of an entire orchestra, and requires a true virtuoso to play. Amazing how much the original material of Bach can be transformed and still be of outstanding beauty.

 

Improvision by Gabriela Montero

Gabriela Montero is another pianist I wanted to write about for a long time. Her specialty is not only being able to play amazing classical music, but to improvise live in front of the audience. Her concerts (and I’ve only been to one of them so far, but want to go again) often include a part where she asks the audience to give their favorite tunes, she picks them up, and starts improvising, like this particular example:

But she also has released albums which include improvisations, like her album Bach and Beyond:

Gabriela Montero: Bach and Beyond

She also takes the Bach Chaconne and transforms it into something very personal on the piano (much shorter than the original at less than 5 minutes). It is not as impressive as Busoni’s massive version, but her personal touch is so beautiful, this entire album is veyr much worth checking out, and if she ever plays near you, you have to go!

 

You can find the albums here:

Milstein here (Qobuz)

Rondeau here (Qobuz) and here (AcousticSounds)

Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prostudiomasters)

Montero here

 

Update October 30, 2018: Gramophone just published their Gramophone Collection review of all Busoni Chaconne recordings, very much worth reading. A lot of versions for me to check out.

And also note that Igor Levit’s version of the Busoni Chaconne on his new album Life is amazing as well.

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Bach: Mass in B-minor by William Christie and Les Arts Florissants – A Review

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants

William Christie, now at the age of 73, is one of the greatest conductors of the historically informed practice (HIP).

The Baroque Ensemble Les Arts Florissants he founded is among the best period ensembles out there. I’ve written about them several times already, e.g. about their Händel Album Music for Queen Caroline, or their Monteverdi Madrigal recording.

I’ve also had the pleasure of seeing William Christie with his ensemble twice already, once performing Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at the London Barbican Theatre, and more recently, with Xavier de Maistre at Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie.

Bach’s B-Minor Mass BWV 232

I’ve written about this masterpiece twice already, initially about Philippe Herreweghe’s 3rd recording, and later about John Eliot Gardiner’s new recording.

I’ve said previously that this is one of the most important masterpieces ever written, and really never get tired of hearing it. In the liner notes to this album, William Christie calls it “[Bach’s] testament, his epitaph, a legacy to those who would follow him

Bach: Mass in B-minor – William Christie – Les Arts Florissants (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

J.S. Bach Mass in B-minor William Christie Les Arts Florissants Live in Paris Harmonia Mundi 24/96

This is a very intimate recording (in spite of being live, this was recorded in 2016 at the Philharmonie de Paris). Both singing and playing are very delicate and balanced.

Tempi are relatively fast (especially compared to the old Karl Richter style) but never rushed. To quote Christie again from the liner notes: Quicker tempi suggest a more physical and dance-like approach to the music“.

Honestly, I really don’t know what to criticize here. I’m a fan of the lighter, more intimate approach, and of the faster tempi. I prefer this even to the very good 2015 Gardiner recording.

It doesn’t kick my all time favorite of Philippe Herreweghe of the throne of “best B-minor ever” for me personally, as the latter just adds a tiny bit more “sparkle”, but this an album really very much worth having.

My rating: 4 stars (actually very close to 5 stars, I just still give the edge to Herreweghe)

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

 

 

 

 

Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenout Play Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – A Sheer Pleasure!

Isabelle Faust

Regular readers of this blog know that I´m a self-declared fanboy of the German violinist Isabelle Faust, as seen here, here, or here.

While I wasn´t too much of an admirer of her recent Mendelssohn concerto recording, as it was “too HIP for my taste”, generally I tend to buy pretty much everything she releases.

Her Bach violin solo sonatas recording (in two volumes, also on Harmonia Mundi) is already excellent, so I was very curious to see how her latest release of the Bach would turn out.

Kristian Bezuidenhout

I was particularly curious given that we get the amazing Kristian Bezuidenhout on the harpsichord, a South-African pianist and keyboard player focusing on historic instruments that I’ve already mentioned in My Must Have Mozart Albums.

Luckily, I wasn’t disappointed!

Bach: Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord – Isabelle Faust & Kristian Bezuidenhout (Harmonia Mundi 2018)

Bach Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord Isabelle Faust - Kristian Bezuidenhout Harmonia Mundi 2017 24 96

Unlike the famous sonatas for solo violin, these sonatas are much less often played. Which really is a pity as it is beautiful music that are really worth being explored in more detail.

By the way, these duo sonatas could also be performed in trio form with an optional viola da gamba. Here we  get the duo form.

I complained about the Mendelssohn lacking some richness in sound and playing.

Here honestly I wouldn’t know what to criticize. The sound of Faust relatively bright Stradivarius is just perfect here in all its brilliance , even singing in a way, and Bezuidenhout plays a harpsichord that has a beautiful rich body.

Harpsichords occasionally can sound a bit thin, making some Bach harpsichord recordings sound more like a typewriter.

None of that here, this is music that is engaging, even dancing, with two equal partners that visibly enjoy playing together.

The recording beautifully showcases the close connection these two masters have developed musically, and makes this entire recording a sheer pleasure to listen to.

My rating: 5 stars

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

UPDATE Feb 28, 2018: Gramophone agrees and gives this album an “Editor´s Choice” in their March 2018 issue.

Getting Seasonal Again with Three Beautiful Versions of Bach´s Magnificat

Magnificat BWV243

Actually, the Magnificat isn’t per see a Christmas-related work. It was however apparently very early on performed on Christmas Day, so it stuck around as a seasonal work. From a content perspective, this is actually about Mary, not Jesus.

This beautiful choral work has been recorded over and over again.

So instead of just picking up one version, let me write about 3 different versions that all have their merits, by outstanding musicians.

John Butt, Dunedin Consort (Linn 2016)

Bach Magnificat Dunedin Consort John Butt Linn 24 192 2016

John Butt takes the Christmas connection seriously, and tries to fully reconstruct Bach´s own Christmas performance in Leipzig. Appropriately, you get some organ music and the Christmas Cantata BWV 63. He even intersects a Vom Himmel Hoch Da Komm Ich Her, a traditional German Christmas Carol, in the middle of the work.

I’ve previously mentioned this album in my comments about the Gramophone Awards nominees in 2016, giving this album 5 stars. My high opinion hasn’t changed, it still is one of the most beautiful version around, and combined with Linn´s excellent recording skills, this is very much worth having. Particularly memorable about this performance is the choir in all its glory.

But let’s look at two recent alternatives:

Bach: Magnificat / Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus – Vox Luminis – Lionel Meunier (Alpha 2017)

Bach: Magnificat Handel: Dixit Dominus Vox Luminis Lionel Meunier Alpha 2017 24 96

This is the most recent release among the three I´ll be writing about. The French Alpha label (OutThereMusic) is one of the most reliable labels I know, usually you can buy them nearly blindly. Nicely enough these days you don’t have to as they are available on most streaming services, which is also what I did first.

Vox Luminis I must admit was new to me, but a bit of research tells me it is an outstanding early music choir from Belgium (a hotspot of early and historically informed performance if there ever was one). And increasingly, they are not only a choir but also built up their own early music orchestra with it.

So how different is this version? Well, if Dunedin is all about sparkle, this is more about nuance and detail. Both really are outstanding recordings of the Magnifcat, you’ll just get a different perspective. So, talking colors, Dundedin is sparkling, polished gold, whereas Vox Luminis is more dark bronze. Both are beautiful in its own right.

What’s different here is the coupling, you get Vivaldis Dixit Dominus here. I’ve previously stated that I’m not a particular fan of the Red Priest, but this is one of the works that is certainly nice having in your catalogue.

Overall: Highly Recommended.

Bach / Vivaldi: Magnificat & Concerti – Jordi Savall – Le Concert des Nations 

Bach Vivaldi Magnificat Concerti Jordi Savall PIerre Hantai Le Concert des Nations La Capella Reial de Catalunya AliaVox 2014 24 / 88

This is the “oldest” of the three recordings, but still pretty recent, as released in 2014.

I absolutely had to include it here, as I just noticed my entire blog in spite of its 2,5 years of existence hasn’t mentioned one of the grand masters of early music yet, the brilliant Jordi Savall.

Jordi Savall, with his trusted ensembles of La Capella Reial and Le Concert Des Nations, is a legend in early music performance. If you don’t know him yet go and discover some of his many outstanding releases.

Interestingly enough, baroque music is already relatively “late” for Savall who focused quite a bit on the pre-baroque era.

But here he shines, particularly in the Magnificat. Comparing to the two version above, this is the most “balanced” approach, mixing the brilliance of the Dunedin´s with the more intimate performance of Vox Luminis.

Very interesting here are the fillers. Again, no fan of Vivaldi, but both the concerto for two violins and Vivaldi´s own Magnificat are quite pleasing. Nothing I´d go out to buy personally.

But the moment we move from Italy to Germany, this album really becomes outstanding. As mentioned, Bach´s Magnificat is close to perfect, And then you get a very surprising filler again, with Bach, with his keyboard concerto BWV 1052.

And who is the soloist, if no other then my beloved Pierre Hantai (see also here and here). I must admit I’m still looking for my perfect version of the Bach keyboard concertos. This one won’t be my reference as Hantai has the occasional quirk (he certainly is a character) that I don’t necessarily always appreciate, but one thing is for sure, you won’t regret having this version in your library. I keep coming back to it all the time.

Summary

There really is not a winner here. Check all of them out, look at which filling material you prefer, no matter what you choose, you’ll make a good choice. The Dunedin may have a slight advantage from an audiophile perspective, but all three recordings are of very high audio quality and are available as high-res recordings, so you really have the beauty of choice here.

My rating for all three albums: 5 stars

 

Update Dec 20, 2017: For once, I don’t really agreed with the latest recommendation by both Classica and Gramophone, who strongly recommend the very recent release of John Eliot Gardiner on SDG. Already the opening movement of the Magnificat sounds so rushed that it reminds me in a way of a 33 tours LP played at 45 RPM. May just be me, but I don’t get it. On the other hand, Classica was only so-so about the recording of Vox Luminis. All these reviews can be found in their December 17 issues. Doesn’t change my opinion above obviously.

 

 

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 Jubliate Bach Collegium Japan Masaaki Suzuki Carolyn Sampson Olivia Vermeulen Makoto Sakurada Christian Immler

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.