Tag Archives: Sony Classical

Volodos Play Brahms – A Fantastic Album

Brahms late solo piano works

Brahms late piano works, starting with the op. 76, but especially his very late works op. 116 – 119 have always been close to my heart.

His piano sonatas, written when he was young, always touched me much less, although I recently found a version I quite liked.

Most of the op. 76 and 116-119 are simply called Klavierstücke, i.e. piano pieces. They are little collections of 4-8 pieces, typically called Cappriccio or Intermezzo, titles that don’t mean a lot.

To me, while I’m well aware that these are composed works, they always reminded me of improvisations. They lack the formal structure of a Beethoven piano sonata, and really just “live in the moment”, if a musical piece can do such a thing.

In a way, they remind me of Keith Jarrett’s solo concertos.

Arcadi Volodos himself calls these pieces “the Summit of piano music”. Brahms himself called op. 117 “lullabies for my sorrows”.

I’ve only written about one recording of these works yet, with Andreas Staier’s excellent recording of op. 118. This is because I was still looking for my favorite version. Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu were both good, I also liked the young French pianist Adam Laloum. But I knew you could do things differently.

Arcadi Volodos

Arcadi Volodos is a Russian pianist and virtuoso. He is pretty well known, but why he doesn’t have more of a reputation escapes me. Maybe it is because he doesn’t search the limelight, and just isn’t present enough in the media.

All of his previous albums were at least good, with some being exceptional, my favorite being Volodos in Vienna, a live recording, and Volodos plays Liszt.

Volodos Plays Brahms

Arcadi Volodos Plays Brahms (24/96) Sony Classical 2017

When I heard this album for the first time, I was a bit puzzled. He really plays these works in a very individual, very different way.

I needed to listen to this at least 5 time before I made up my mind. But now I really just love it. His playing is extremely nuanced, never just showing off the great virtuoso he really is, and in a way, this is probably the recording that gets closest to my idea about playing them like Keith Jarrett plays live.

Nicely enough, the sound quality of this recording matches the musical quality. This was recorded at Berlin’s mythical Teldex Studio, with Volodos playing his personal favorite Steinway. The recording quality captures the intimate nature of these pieces very well.

My rating: 5 stars

Classica agrees by the way, and gives this album a Choc, their highest rating. The Guardian has quite a different opinion, giving it only 3 stars.

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

 

UPDATE May 21: In it’s June 2017 issue, Gramophone agrees and gives this album an Editor’s Choice, and Album of the Month.

 

Update June 6: Diapason d’or for from Diapason Magazine, and plenty of other good reviews of this album mentioned here.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Hype vs. Hype – Lang Lang vs. Benjamin Grosvenor

First of all, to my subscribers, you may have been surprised not to see a post yesterday. This indeed has been the first time since I started this blog nearly 6 month ago that I didn’t post anything on my regular schedule of every 2-3 days. I unfortunately had a health issue in the family. I’ll really target to get fully back on schedule with posts appearing at least every 3 days.

Second, to the Jazz fans among my readers, hope you don’t get bored, my blog has been rather focused on classical music for the last posts. I’m working on getting back to Jazz ASAP.

But well, one more on classical music.

This one was triggered by my mother in law, suggesting I should write about Lang Lang’s latest album. When I spoke to her, I mentioned that I hadn’t heard it yet, but wasn’t a big fan of Lang Lang in general. Her answer was, “So why don’t you compare it to something you like better?”.

Well, here we go.

“Hyped* classical music artists

Every once in a while there are musicians out there, that, usually helped either by YouTube (e.g. Valeria Lisitsa) or by the label (remember Vanessa Mae?) that are rather well-known even to a non classical audience, and have a certain pop-star following. Sometimes (e.g. Jonas Kaufmann) the hype is correlated with quality, more often than not, I find the correlation between fame and quality in classical music to be not very strong.

Lang Lang is a typical example. He’s probably today’s best known pianists (don’t have any data to back this up unfortunately). And as I said to my mother-in-law above, I have yet to hear a Lang Lang album I really like.

But thanks to my streaming subscription I could simply check the latest album out and make up my own mind.

Lang Lang in Paris Chopin Tchaikovsky Sony 2015

The Chopin Scherzi

A word of introduction on the music: the album consists of the four Chopin Scherzi, and Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons for piano. I’m not very familiar with the latter, so I’m not going to comment on the performance.

However, I just love the Scherzi. There is an entire world in the 6-12 minutes of each one, and they are among my absolute favorite piano pieces by Chopin.

So my expectations were rather high. And I’m sorry to say I was disappointed.

No. 1 was just too nervous, to ADHD (my wife told me to switch albums when we listened to it together).

No. 2 is nicely flowing at the beginning, but getting a bit quirky over time, and again too nervous in the fast parts.

No. 3 is probably the best of the four, a bit too much still, but quite enjoyable nevertheless.

The worst was probably no. 4, just too much forte all over the place, and just too slow for my taste.

Benjamin Grosvenor

Now, as suggested by my wise mother-in-law, let me write about my recommended alternative.

And actually another form of “hype”, albeit at a smaller scale.

Benjamin Grosvenor at the tender age of 24 has won more awards already than others in a lifetime. He was Gramophone’s youngest-ever double award winner, and the rest of the British (and partially international) press went just as crazy about him.

So how’s the hype working out here?

Well actually, I’m a HUGE fan. His Chopin Liszt Ravel album, which features all 4 Scherzi, is just outstanding, and his more recent release Dances was not far behind in terms of quality (I mentioned it my comments about the 2015 Gramophone awards here).

There are obviously other outstanding versions of the Scherzi out there (Argerich for no. 3, Rubinstein, and the best I’ve heard was Kristin Zimerman for no. 2 in a live concert), but the recording here is pretty close to perfect.

Benjamin Grosvenor Chopin Liszt Ravel Decca 2011

My rating: 3 stars (Lang Lang) vs. 5 stars (Grosvenor)

You can find the Lang Lang here (Qobuz) if you really insist, and the Grosvenor here (Qobuz) and here (Prestoclassical).

The official “making of” of the Lang Lang in Paris album here:

My favorite Four Seasons by Giuliano Carmignola with the Venice Baroque Orchestra

Another blog post triggered by the series of blind comparisons on Swiss radio, Disques en lice, the French version, this time. They’ve recently compared 7 versions of the world famous Four Seasons.

Antonio Vivaldi and The Four Seasons

I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not a very big Vivaldi fan. On my personal scale, Bach and even partially Händel are miles ahead of the Red Priest. I wouldn’t go as far as Stravinsky who said Vivaldi had written the same concerto 400 times, he has a point though.

But obviously, you just HAVE to have a version of the world most famous program music, the Four Seasons, in any decent record collection (or music collection to be more generic, does anybody still collect records out there?).

Obviously this has been overplayed to death. But if you haven’t listened to it for a while and actually give it a go again with a fresh ear, there are many beautiful elements in there that makes it worth going back to it occasionally. On my personal playlist it appears about 1 per year.

How to choose a version

Obviously, this work has been recorded a gazillion times. I had chosen my personal preference, the recording by Carmignola below, some time ago after comparing about 20 versions. So take this with a grain of salt, obviously there are many other good recordings out there.

In any case, I was obviously very curious if it would appear in the Disques en lice selection, and how it would compare.

Unfortunately, exactly this recording didn’t appear. However, luckily for me, Carmignola actually recorded the Four Seasons twice, and his earlier recording with the Sonatori de la Gioiosa Marca was selected. I was surprised how close these two versions were, in spite of being recorded with 10 years between them.

In a nutshell, that program confirmed my clear preference for Carmignola. The three experts in the program liked it as well, but in the end found it a bit too middle of the road (and they have a point in a way) and preferred in the end the more extreme recordings by Diego Faso’s,  very theatrical, worth checking out, but a bit “too much” for me, and Midori Seiler with the Akademie für Alte Musik, a really good recording but I personally don’t like the sound of Seiler’s violin very much).

Carmignola’s 2nd recording of the Four Seasons

Vivaldi Four Seasons Giuliano Carmignola Andrea Marcon Venice Baroque Orchestra Sony

So what does Carmignola do? Well nothing special, just everything right, and very right. His Guarneri has a beautiful voice, and the Venice Baroque Orchestra plays with just the right level of energy, speed and drive, and a lot of transparency (which by the way luckily is very well recorded, so you get the same transparency transported very well).

Ah yes, and you also get two world premiere recordings of two previously unknown violin concertos as a filler. But in a way, we’re back here to Stravinsky’s 400 times the same, there don’t really disturb, but I really don’t feel you would have missed anything if these had stayed unrecorded for just a little bit longer.

My rating: Four stars (It’s a true five-star performance though, but I just cannot get myself to give 5 stars to Vivaldi, so just ignore the star rating and get it anyhow).

You can get it here (Prestoclassical) and here (Qobuz).

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)