Yuja Wang: The Berlin Recital

Recording of the Month  December 2018

Artist photos © Peter Adamik

Yuja Wang’s meteoric rise to global stardom has been one of the most extraordinary stories of the piano world over the last decade.

When her debut CD for Deutsche Grammophon was released back in 2009 she was barely in her 20’s and many (me included) raised their eyebrows at her choice of programme, opening with Chopin’s monumental B flat minor Sonata and squeezing in performances of Scriabin’s 2nd Sonata and two Ligeti Etudes before finishing with Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. As it turned out, she performed all these with aplomb, her Liszt in particular being among the very best readings recently committed to disc.

Since then, the Chinese virtuoso has recorded concerti by Rachmaninov, Prokofiev (perhaps the most emotionally gripping performance I’ve yet heard of his grief-ridden 2nd Concerto), Ravel and Mendelssohn. Her solo discs Transformation and Fantasia have delighted fans, and she has lit up the world’s greatest concert halls with her technically explosive and musically rapt playing.

Now she’s back with a new recording. The Berlin Recital was recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie Kammermusiksaal in June 2018, and features a bedazzling programme of music by Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Ligeti and Prokofiev.

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It’s an easy choice for Recording of the Month. Let’s investigate…

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La Fenice

Recording of the Month  November 2018

“So, who’s your favourite pianist, then?”

It’s a question most of us run from. But over many years I have become comfortable in naming Keith Jarrett as, if not “favourite” (because I enjoy the playing of great musicians from a variety of genres), then certainly one of the most extraordinary pianists alive.

So when a new album of his live improvised music is released, it jumps straight to the top of the pile, and likely becomes a very easy choice for “Recording of the Month”.

Happily for me (and for you) La Fenice is not simply an album of live outtakes from the vault, but another very special Jarrett release which demonstrate just why he is such an extraordinary and acclaimed musician. La Fenice Recorded live in concert on a single evening, La Fenice exemplifies everything that those in-the-know have come to treasure in Jarrett’s music. So let’s take a closer look…

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Tord Gustavsen Trio: “The Other Side”

Photo credit: Hans Fredrik Asbjørnsen

Recording of the Month   October 2018

Just as the great classical composers would often use the medium of the string quartet to explore new compositional ideas, techniques and directions, so jazz pianists have often produced their most exploratory work in the trio format.

One of the noteworthy recent exponents of the jazz trio is Norwegian pianist Tord Gustavsen. His Trio, featuring drummer Jarle Vespestad and bassist Harald Johnsen, toured between 2003-08, releasing three recordings, Changing Places (2003), The Ground (2005), Being There (2007), all on the ECM Records label.

Changing Places wasn’t, as it happens, my first encounter with Gustavsen’s playing; he had previously recorded sessions with fellow Norwegian chanteuse, Silje Nergaard, one of my absolute favourite singers. Gustavsen’s understated but deeply felt piano lines in her early recordings certainly made their impression on me, but hearing him let loose in a trio format really bought home the delicate brilliance and originality of his playing.

Following on from the three trio albums, which established Gustavsen’s voice as the preeminent lyrical pianist of the Nordic school, with colourful tinges of blues and gospel never far from the surface in his playing, he developed larger ensembles. The Tord Gustavsen Quartet added saxophonist Tore Brunborg, while the Ensemble added the vocals of Kristin Ambjørnsen.

And for his 2016 release What Was Said (my personal favourite, by the way) he was joined by German-Afgan jazz singer Simin Tander alongside regular drummer Jarle Vespestad.

Along the way, Gustavsen added experimentation with electronic instruments and treatments to his already gorgeous sonic palette.

The Other Side marks Gustavsen’s return to the basic format of the standard Trio after more than a decade of exploring these other musical possibilities. As I listened to preview track The Tunnel over the late summer, I wondered whether this new album would be somewhat a return to Gustavsen’s roots, or be markedly different from the earlier Trio albums ….

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Alice Sara Ott: Nightfall

Recording of the Month  September 2018

Of the many wonderful young pianists who have arrived on the international performing circuit in recent years, Alice Sara Ott impresses me as one of the more honest to her own artistic intentions, and authentic in her delivery.

Her several recordings for Deutsche Grammophon have consistently revealed Ott as an intelligent pianist, eschewing glitz for its own sake, ready and willing to plough her own musical furrow, staying true to her vision and – importantly – to the intentions and spirit of the composers whose music she identifies with.

Commenting on her latest release, Nightfall, the now-30-year-old German pianist writes:

“It’s a very personal album in which I recall many moments of light and brightness, but also moments of darkness and doubt. One month before I entered the recording studio – I was in the midst of the bleak world of Gaspard de la nuit – my father suffered a heart attack that he barely survived. Despite a fortunate outcome, these were terrifying hours and days in which I realised how close life and death are intertwined. But there can be no light without darkness, and no hope without fear. And sometimes the borders blur – as in Nightfall.”

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Christmas Piano Music

Album Review

I simply must tell you about Peter Froundjian’s new release for SONY Classical, Christmas Piano Music. It is surely one of the most unusual, but fabulous recordings of the year!

Unusual, because there is hardly a single work on here that will be familiar (many are world premiere recordings). Fabulous because, from top to toe, these neglected works are wonderful and beautifully performed.

It really deserves to be heard in every household this Christmas season!

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Tokio Myers: Our Generation

Album Review

When 32 year-old Tokio Myers won this year’s Britain’s Got Talent, students were quick to ask my opinion, and like many, I was undecided about his music, but blown away by his story.

Now Tokio returns to the public eye with the release of his debut album…

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Andrew James Johnson: ‘Winter’s Heart’

Album Review

Winter’s Heart is the debut solo album by Andrew James Johnson, released this week. According to the press release I received a few months back,

“Andrew’s music has an honesty and openness that reflect his life journey in a meditative and truthful way that universally appeals to listeners of all ages.”

I was naturally curious – and the advance review copy has been spinning in my CD player fairly regularly over the last few weeks. Here’s my review…

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Catherine Gordeladze’s ‘Dance Fantasies’

Album Review

It has become fashionable, once again, for concert pianists to release recital albums containing a mixed variety of music, brought together by a particular concept.

I personally welcome this approach, finding that it leads to releases which are generally more enjoyable than listening to the completist’s rendition of a huge raft of music by one composer. But it is certainly a challenge for pianists to put together a programme that is both fresh and familiar.

Where some have failed, Georgian pianist Catherine Gordeladze has brilliantly succeeded on her new release, called Dance Fantasies. And remarkably, about half of the music here was new to me, even though the programme strikes a fabulous balance between novelty and the comfort of the familiar.

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Ayako Fujiki: “brightwater”

brightwaterNew Recording

Ayako Fujiki is a Japanese classical pianist who lives in Barcelona, Spain, where she had the privilege of learning with the legendary Spanish concert pianist Alicia de Larrocha.

She has released three classical recordings, and now brings us Brightwater, a collection of her own original compositions. Already a success in Spain, Ayako now hopes to win more fans in the UK and beyond.

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