Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe – Outstanding!

A quick comment on classical reviews

I’ve mentioned this several times before, reviewing classical music is a very subjective business. See examples here and here of cases where professional reviewers disagree a lot about the quality of a recording.

Therefore, it is even more impressive if you find reviews where nearly everybody agrees. Those are the recordings you should truly check out, as these are actually rather rare.

One of these outstanding recordings is the recent Arkadi Volodos recording of Brahms. This album got a “Choc” (i.e. 5 stars) from Classica AND an Album of the Month by Gramophone.

What is even more impressive is that not only these two agree, but 5 other classical reviewers (not counting me) do as well. Classica publishes every month an overview of what the leading critics in the French media (France 3, Le Figaro, Radio Classique, France Musique, and Le Monde) think of a number of recent albums on a scale from “X” (didn’t like at all) to “three hearts” (liked passionately). I check this overview every month, and it is really extremely rare to find that all reviewers give three hearts.

Well, for the Volodos recording, three hearts from all of them. The only outlier I’m aware off is Andrew Clements from the Guardian.

In a nutshell, we have a strong contender here for the piano album of the year (a bit early after only 5 months, but mark my words, I’ll get back to this later).

Why am I writing all this in a review of a completely different album?

Well, a because I just read the overview in the latest Classica, but also because the album I’ll be writing about now is to me the only serious contender for best piano album of the year (again, so far).

 

Alexandre Kantorow – A La Russe (BIS 2017)

I first heard about Kantorow, son of the conductor Jean-Jacques Kantorow, from a recent email by Robert von Bahr, the owner of the Swedish independent classical label BIS.

I’m on his mailing list, and on a monthly basis, you’ll get a note about BIS’s most recent releases. Obviously, this being the owner, you have to take his promotional talk with a grain of salt, but actually he has a rather refreshing open style, and more often than not, he can even be sometimes being quite critical of his own releases.

So when I received an email with the following text “I have absolutely no qualms in saying, nay, screaming, that we in ALEXANDRE KANTOROW have a super talent, indeed someone destined for a world career that is now starting (….) Alexandre Kantorow is a genius, and we are going to record as much with him as he can give us“, I at least got curious.

Well, Robert wasn’t overpromising. This album is truly spectacular, and really is so far the only real challenger for Arkadi Volodos this year.

Alexandre Kantorow A La Russe BIS 2017 (24/96)

What do you get? Well, as the title indicates, Russian composers. A sonata by Rachmaninov, some lesser known pieces by Tchaikovsky, and Balakirev’s Islamey.

But to me the absolute highlight of this album is the piano transcriptions of parts of L’Oiseau du Feu (Firebird) by Igor Stravinsky. I’m not a big fan of Stravinsky in general, his music doesn’t speak to me that much.

But here, I cannot be but mesmerized by the mixture of extreme virtuosity and outstanding musicality.

This is a must have album.

My review: 5 stars

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

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.

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:

Two Recent Releases I Really Don’t Like

What “Not Good” Looks Like

I’ve been writing a lot about albums I really like, just witness the number of 4 and 5 star reviews (you can click on the link on the side bar, categories to find them) I’ve recently written (for more information about my personal rating scale, see here)

However, for this site to be useful to anybody, I strongly believe I also need to write about stuff I don’t like that much, so you can check if your taste really agrees with mine.

Too many reviewers seem to have their rating scale only between 4 and 5. How do you really separate the good from the bad this way? Obviously, a  big part of this is just selection bias.

I assume, professional reviewers are not too much unlike me and much more prefer to write about stuff they like vs. stuff they don’t  like. Same has happened on my site so far, with few exceptions.

My two main sources of classical reviews, Gramophone (UK) and Classica (FR) don’t shy away from low ratings, that’s what I like about them. Gramophone doesn’t use a rating scale beyond the Editor’s Choice, but you can clearly read from the text whether they are enthusiastic or not.

And Classica really doesn’t shy away from using 1 stars, given the two examples below. And unfortunately, I wholeheartedly agree with their assessment.

Dudamel, Barenboim and Brahms

Classical uses a 4 star plus “Choc” scale, which equals about my 5 star system. However, in their most recent October issue, I’ve seen a new rating of a hollow star which I had never noticed before, for this recent DG release of Barenboim for once back at the piano, with the young superstar Dudamel. Unfortunately, I must agree with Classica here. I really cannot find any positive element to these recordings of the two concertos that I love so much (how weird I haven’t mentioned them yet on the blog).

Honestly, 1 min into the opening of the first piano concerto I had enough; there was nothing at all of the drama and desperation that so much impressed me when I heard this first at the age of 17. I know Dudamel has many fans, but I have yet to hear a recording of him that I really like (admittedly, I’ve only heard a few). And when Barenboim comes in, it doesn’t get any better. I’m really thankful for streaming these days that let’s you listen to recordings without having to buy them, I’d really have major regrets for this one.

Brahms Piano Concertos Dudamel Barenboim 2015

My rating: 2 stars (1 star for me really means un-listenable, and Brahms will always be Brahms, even if butchered like here).

For the Brahms concertos, you have many good alternatives, from pretty much every recording that Georges Szell ever made of them (be it Fleischer, Curzon, or Serkin), to Chailly with Freire for a more contemporary one.

Arabella Steinbacher Plays Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky

Arabella Steinbacher Mendelssohn Tchaikovsky Violin Concertos Orchestre de la Suisse Romande Charles Duitoit Pentatone

Here’s another disappointment: Arabella Steinbacher is a truly great violin player. However, from the opening moments of the Mendelssohn I knew something was very wrong. A very sweet tone with a lot of vibrato, but very little energy behind it.

And in comes the orchestra (let me open a little parenthesis here for fun: Mendelssohn is one of the very few orchestras that starts with the soloist, not with the orchestra, there’s an urban legend that a violinist player was relaxed at the beginning of the concert, assuming he’ll have to play Beethoven. The conductor gives him signal after signal, but the violinist doesn’t get it. Finally, the conductor desperately starts, the violinist after the first second realizes his mistake and raises up the violin literally last-minute. Parenthesis closed. If somebody has a source that this has really happened, please let me know) and it really doesn’t get any better.

The Tchaikovsky is equally uninteresting unfortunately.

Classica agrees with me, giving this recording a rather brutal 1 star and talking about a “lack of engagement” which nicely summarizes my feelings as well.

My rating: 2 stars (again, 1 star would be too brutal, I can listen to this, I just don’t want to).

Excellent alternatives are Janine Jansen on Decca for the Mendelssohn , and Julia Fischer for the Tchaikovsky (like the Steinbacher, on Pentatone).