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)