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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Lisa Batiashvili playing Brahms at Tonhalle Zurich – Fantastic

5 fantastic female violin players

So, this was supposed to be just a concert report about last night at Tonhalle Maag in Zurich. But please allow me a small parenthesis.

These days we’re extremely lucky, as we have many outstanding classical music artists that are currently active. I’ve already written about my Top 10 Favourite Classical Pianists some time ago, but I’ve never done the same for the violin.

Right now, there are about 5 female violinists that I truly admire, all of which are world-class. I had seen Alina Ibragimova earlier this year already, and had the pleasure of seeing Lisa Batiashvili for the first time last night.

But then, innocently enough, there was a little sign post in front of the Tonhalle Maag building, announcing Julia Fischer playing Mendelssohn’s violin concert at the very same Tonhalle in about a month time. The ticket office was open, so I obviously got tickets for that one as well. I don’t know why I haven’t written about Julia Fischer on this blog yet, but I’ll start a post on my top 10  favorite violinist soon, she’ll be in there.

So I was joking to the guy at the ticket office, if now I could only see Isabelle Faust and Janine Jansen live this year as well, I’d finally have covered all my favorite players. And then I realised, that was exactly what I had to do. So while waiting for the gates of the Tonhalle to open, I bought tickets for Isabelle Faust with the Akademie für Alte Musik playing Bach concertos, and I now just need to pick one of Jansen’s great concerts this year (Sibelius, Brahms, Berg, some chamber music in Verbier, there’s a lot of choice).

Let me close the long parenthesis here, but one of my new year resolutions was to see more live concerts. I started well, but slowed down in recent month. (By the way, I completely missed writing about seeing Aracadi Volodos live some months ago, my bad)

But now it looks like it is going to be a really good year now!

Lisa Batiatishvili, Antonio Pappano, Chamber Orchestra of Europe – Ligeti & Brahms – May 23, 2018, Tonhalle Maag, Zurich

So, now let’s get to the concert itself.

The Chamber Orchestra is a great ensemble, especially under an outstanding conductor.

Antonio Pappano really is one of those great conductors. I’ve written about him already twice on this blog, and in both cases we’re talking about 5 star albums. First his great Aida, and then even more relevant for last night’s performance, the Brahms violin concerto with Janine Jansen.

So while the orchestra and the soloist is different, I already had some idea how Pappano would potentially approach the orchestral part of this great violin concerto. Obviously, here we had the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and not his own Accademia di Santa Cecilia, but it was clear that Pappano and the orchestra knew each other well, as they are currently touring all over Europe with this program.

But first things first, the program started with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc. I must admit I had no idea what to expect, as I mentioned previously on this blog, I’m really not very knowledgable with classical music after 1920. I barely ever venture beyond the safe bets of Bartok, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.

I was very positively surprised. The short work really is a firework of musical ideas and energy. I definitely need to check out more of Ligeti, one more (rather late) new year resolution then.

But now to the Masterpiece of the evening, the Brahms violin concerto.

I really had high hopes for this. As mentioned above, Pappano had already shown with Jansen that he really knows this work, and Batiashvili earlier recording of the Sibelius violin concerto with Oramo is one of my favourite versions on disc.

I was a little hesitant though as I’m not such a big fan of the only time Batiashvili recorded this concerto before, with Christian Thielemann in Dresden. I mean, it’s not bad, but something always felt slightly off. By now I feel this slightly off thing actually was Thielemann, not Batishvili (I never was a fan of Thielemann in the first place).

Luckily, no Thielemann here, just Pappano. What did we get?

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To make it short: an outstanding experience. Pappano and the COE put in an amazing energy and pleasure, and Batiatishvili really played with all her heart. This was BIG Brahms, and it really was the full Cinemascope experience of this masterpiece.

The overall concert was so outstanding, that even the iPhone that was ringing TWICE! in the handbag of the elderly lady just in front of me didn’t spoil the experience (she clearly probably just received this phone and had no idea how to even switch off the sound).

The Tonhalle audience agreed, this was one of the most overwhelming applauses I’ve seen from in Zurich. We got treated to a nice encore.

I was even thinking, maybe I should just leave during the break, I cannot get any better.

I probably should have. After the break, we got Brahms’ Serenade no. 1. And I must admit I really don’t get why you can schedule Brahms most boring orchestral work EVER after the masterpiece of the violin concerto.

It really wasn’t the fault of Pappano and the COE not putting in an effort. This was am excellent performance on par with my current reference, Riccardo Chailly with the Gewandhaus.

But still I really think the serenades were nothing but trial works for his real symphonies, and I rather would have had ANY other Brahms orchestral work, even the rather silly Academic Festival overture, than this.

Nevertheless, this was truly an evening to remember!

Now I’m looking forward to Julia Fischer and Herbert Blomstedt.

Brahms Complete Piano Sonatas by François-Frédéric Guy – A Review

Brahms’ Piano Sonatas

I’m a fan of Johannes Brahms (see my blog’s subtitle). I’m a fan of his piano works, especially op. 116-119 (which are among his latest works).

However, until recently, his three piano sonatas never really touched me. I just didn’t get them. We’re talking about his op. 1, 2, and 5, so pretty much his first “official” compositions.

No. 3, op. 5, is the most well-known of the works. It is this piece that Robert Schumann heard when the shy 20-year old young man Brahms was at the time was introduced to the famous composer, which lead Schumann to write his famous article about Brahms being” one of those who comes as if straight from God”, and “He has a great future before him, for he will first find the true field for his genius when he begins to write for the orchestra”. 

Well, with hindsight, Schumann was obviously more than right, but it’s amazing he was able to cast such a judgment based on these works. So I always knew there must have been something in these works that I was missing.

My first version ever of op. 5 was by Radu Lupu (not a bad choice actually), and I very quickly also got the famous complete Brahms piano works box from Julius Katchen.

So I didn’t have a bad starting point, but as said before, I never really was drawn into his early sonatas.

But obviously, I try to check out as many new Brahms piano releases as I can. Recently, Geoffroy Couteau released a box of complete Brahms piano works, which got great reviews by the French press. I’m still making my way through that box, but so far I don’t share the enthusiasm of Classica and Diapason. Anyway, more about this later.

Brahms: Complete Piano Sonatas – François Frédéric Guy (Evidence Classics 2016)

Brahms Complete Piano Sonatas François-Frédéric Guy Evidence 2016 24 48

In any case,  I didn’t expect much when I checked out another French pianist, François-Frédéric Guy’s recent recording of the complete piano sonatas.

And I was very positively surprised! Guy actually specialized in German composers, especially Beethoven and Brahms.

So what makes this recording special? Basically, one thing, passion. I can really hear the 20 year old genius playing at the Schumann’s home in Düsseldorf in this album.

This album doesn’t necessarily sound like “typical” Brahms to me (if there were such a thing). Some softer elements remind me of Chopin, some more energetic moments even sound a bit like Rachmaninov (who obviously wasn’t even born yet when these pieces were composed).

 

There is a really nice example on Youtube:

 

This album is absolutely worth checking out.

My rating: 4 stars

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