Alice in Grieg’s Wonderland

The usual excuses first

I’ve been crazy busy the last weeks being home on average about 1-2 nights per week, the rest full of business and private travel. Therefore, my blog writing has suffered quite a bit.

And this is not because of a lack of interesting new albums to write about. Well, on Jazz, it partially is, while I do have two reviews upcoming, this site may be a bit disappointing for you currently if you’re more in to Jazz than Classical music. Hope you bear with me.

But with regards to classical, there have been a number of interesting albums released recently, all of which I have planned to write about, including Andreas Staier’s new Schubert Trios, Benjamin Grosvenor’s new release, Adam Laloum getting into Schumann and Schubert, the Chiaroscuro Quartet playing Hadyn, the Belcea Quartet playing Brahms, etc. etc.

OK, so the paragraph above should put enough pressure on me to actually write all these reviews in the next weeks, where hopefully my travel activity should be a bit more measured.

Alice Sara Ott

Alice Sara Ott is a young pianist (born 1988) of German and Japanese origin. She’s recorded already quite a number of albums but the only one I have had on my radar screen so far is her recording of the Complete Waltzes by Chopin. I kind of liked that album, but then again the waltzes are about my least favorite Chopin works relatively speaking, so I didn’t spend much time on it.

Wonderland

Honestly, the title of her latest album put me off a little bit, the wordplay is just a little bit too obvious. But then again, you don’t buy a book for it’s cover, and the same logic should apply for classical albums.

Wonderland Grieg Piano Concerto Lyric Pieces Alice Sara Ott Deutsche Grammophon 2016 24/48

And I’m happy I went further, because this recording of the piano concerto is really worth it.

I’ve previously written about Javier Perianes who did a similar coupling of the piano concerto with the Lyric pieces (see my review here), and this recording, while being quite different, is really at the same level.

If you want to compare the two, Perianes is probably the more energetic, Ott with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the BR symphony takes a more lyrical approach. You’ll get lots of rubato (the concept of “stealing” time to give it back later, i.e. variations of the tempo), with some moments being even extremely slow (already in the opening bars for example).

But unlike the recent recording of the Schumann piano concerto by Melnikov, where I was a bit put off with the slow speed of the third movement, here all slow moments make perfect sense to me. And don’t get me wrong, when the piece needs energy and passion, you’ll get plenty.

Does this version beat my reference version from Leif Ove Andsnes? Well, not exactly, but it is clearly a worthy alternative.

As a “filler”, you don’t get the usual coupling with Schumann, but similar to Perianes, you get a selection of the Lyric pieces, and given that these are little gems, they are very much worth having. To lighten things up a bit more, you even get piano transcriptions of Grieg’s most famous piece, Peer Gynt, in the mix.

My rating: 4 stars

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

Gramophone’s Editor’s Choices Sometimes Leave Me Puzzled

I just wrote about the Quatuor Ebène’s brilliant new Schubert recording, which received an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone. This legendary magazine is obviously among the ultimate references in reviewing classical music.

Therefore, I checked out another Editor’s Choice from Gramophone’s May Edition:

Tchaikovsky & Grieg: Piano Concertos – Denis Kozhukin – Vassily Sinalsky – Rundfunksinfonieorchester Berlin (Pentatone 2016)

Tchaikovsky & Grieg: Piano Concertos - Denis Kozhukin - Vassily Sinaisky - Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin Pentatone 2016 DSD

Then I started listening. And couldn’t believe my ears. The Tchaikovsky is about as far as my idea of an ideal recording as it could be.

To be fair, I’m not a big fan of Tchaikovsky in the first place (see also here), and I have played his 1st piano concerto too much in my youth, unfortunately on another recording which today I really don’t like, Evgeny Kissin’s famous (or notorious) recording with Herbert von Karajan and the BPO.

To give you an idea how for my ears this concerto should be played, check out this legendary 1943 concerto played by Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Toscanini:

This version really couldn’t be any more different to this new Pentatone release

So what does Patrick Rucker praise in his review? He mainly compliments Kozhukin’s naturalness. And I get that. The slow movement of the Grieg for example is beautifully played (I still prefer Andnes by quite a bit though). However, he then goes on and writes “you’re left with one thing: the music”. Well I really don’t get it, to me this music without the full power of the emotion of these romantic masterpieces is missing so much, TOO much for me.

My rating: Three stars (I don’t want to give Kozhukhin less than this, as I can clearly hear from this album that he has potential, although if I follow my own rating system systematically, it should have been 2 stars, as I’ll definitely won’t be listening to this album again).

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

P.S. I already had this recording typed out and ready for publishing when I read the review in the just released May issue of Classica Magazine, my other reading of choice.

And guess what: Two stars! (out of 5), to quote Clément Serrano about the Tchaikovsky “sans prise de risque”, without risk-taking, and similar, although slightly friendlier words about the Grieg. He reminds his readers again about the recent Perianes – Oramo recording of the Grieg, and I couldn’t agree more.

So in a nutshell, never trust a single review of a classical music album, even if it comes from a very reputable source, but always make up your own mind before buying. Luckily, in the days of streaming services, this is easier than ever.

A Follow-Up on Grieg’s Piano Concerto – Andsnes Still Wins

Disques en lice

I’ve mentioned several times that Swiss radio has two great shows, one in German, one in French, that both have the same approach, select 5-6 versions of a classical work, get 2-3 experts and a  moderator in a radio studio, and have the experts compare these versions blindly. The German version is called Diskothek im Zwei, the French version is called Disques en lice.

I follow both regularly. I often don’t agree with the invited experts, but it is a really nice challenge to see if you listen to the same music without knowing who’s playing, you still like it (or maybe like it less if you’re not aware one of your heros is playing).

A similar concept exists with wine (my other passion), and unlike my wife who has a much better nose, I’m only average at blind tastings. Luckily, I usually do better with music.

Grieg’s piano concerto

I’ve already written about Grieg’s piano concerto previously in this post about Javier Perianes recent recording. There I mentioned that my all time favorite is the version with Leif-Ove Andsnes.

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Leif Ove Andsnes Maris Jansons Berliner Philharmoniker

I’m a big Andsnes fan boy, as also documented in my recent commentary about his Beethoven concertos here. So I was really hoping that Disques en lice would include his version, as I wanted to ensure that I still like the version when actually I don’t know it’s him. Luckily for me they did (link to the show here).

Let me brag a little here (sorry!), but I recognized his version blindly in all three movements, and am still as enthusiastic about it as before! I really don’t know how one could do this concerto any better than Andsnes and Jansons.

The competition included:

  • The very recent Vadym Kholodenko recording on Harmonia Mundi with the Norjan Radion Orkesteri. Well, overall I kind of liked the version but must agree with the experts that the orchestra just isn’t the same level than the others, so this got kicked out after the first round (3 stars)
  • Nikolai Lugansky with Kent Nagano and the DSO Berlin: well, ok, but nothing special. Also got voted out rather rapidly, fine by me (3 stars)

The three versions that made it to the final round (3rd movement) are Andsnes, and these two:

  • Nelson Freire, Rudolf Kempe, with the Munich Philharmonic. Interesting version, the still very young Freire has tons of energy here. Unfortunately I liked the orchestral playing quite a bit less (4 stars overall). Nevertheless, this version convinced one  of the three commenting experts

Grieg Schumann Piano Concertos Radu Lupu André Previn, London Symphony Orchestra Decca

  • Radu Lupu, André Previn, London Symphony. This version won for the two other experts. Well, I get what they like, Lupu is obviously doing an outstanding job, and the way they play the 2nd movement is out of this world! Unfortunately, overall this version is just a tad too slow for me, losing too much energy in the process especially in the first movement (still 4 stars though).

Therefore, Andsnes remains my hero for Grieg, and I reconfirm my 5 stars for this album!

The Perianes version from my last post was played at the beginning of the show unfortunately “hors concours”, I still like this recording a lot

And the Moog recording I commented about last time I’ve seen reviewed twice now. Gramophone really loved it, Classica in the latest issue only give it 3 star, in line with my rating.