Brad Mehldau is not simply one of the true greats of jazz piano, but one of the most interesting composers, collaborators and creators in the contemporary music scene.
Every release of his is special, and this year we are fortunate to have two in close succession, the brilliant quartet album RoundAgainwith Joshua Redman, Christian McBride and Brian Blade and, the subject of this review, Suite: April 2020, an intimate solo set comprising twelve pieces improvised in response to the lockdown of March/April 2020, plus three concluding bonus cover versions.
Suite: April 2020 appeared digitally almost immediately back in the late spring, and the physical CD album arrived this Autumn:
There have been several remarkable piano recordings in the last month, but as regular readers will know I always particularly enjoy releases which expand our knowledge of the repertoire and take us on a journey of musical discovery.
Murray McLachlan’s latest release (and his first for Naxos) is a notable example, delivering a complete overview of the solo piano music of contemporary composer Edward Gregson.
Gregson (b. 1945) was a student of Alan Bush (who, incidentally, I met and played for as a teenager); like his teacher, Gregson combines modernity with irrepressible harmonic logic in his music, and it has a uniformly accessible appeal.
Though perhaps chiefly known for his music for brass and wind, this new recording reveals that Gregson’s piano compositions very much come from his “top drawer”, and deserve a far wider uptake.
For his part, McLachlan has added to an already raucously adventurous discography a recording which reaffirms, should we need reminding, that his name belongs in the first division of British artists.
So let’s explore this intriguing and fabulously enjoyable album…
In my review of Catherine Gordeladze’s Dance Fantasies CD back in 2017, I concluded,
“Dance Fantasies is a brilliant success, offering a fabulous selection of familiar and semi-familiar music in a fresh and inspired piece of programming.”
Now Gordeladze is back with an equally clever and in my view even better executed recital album intriguingly titled Caprice Brillant. Featuring a 76-minute programme of music from Bach to Kapustin, from Mendelssohn to Moszkowski, Gordeladze once again assembles an imaginative and riveting programme of too-little performed piano gems.
Let’s take a closer look at this month’s Pianodao Choice recording…
Of all the truly seminal composers in the evolution of the piano repertoire, Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) remains one of the less performed, his significance little understood, his extraordinary music too easily overlooked.
How welcome then In paradisum, the second instalment in French-Canadian pianist Louis Lortie’s Chandos series A Fauré Recital which began with the excellent Après un rêve(available here) back in 2016, and which we must hope will develop into a complete cycle of this, arguably Fauré’s most important body of music.
Whether you are already an enthusiast for this music or a newcomer to it, Lortie’s winning way with Fauré’s idiom will enchant and enliven your appreciation of this wonderful music, so let’s take the disc for a spin…
This month it’s a pleasure to be shining the spotlight on a concerto recording for the first time on Pianodao: to be precise, DG’s new disc of concertante works by Shostakovich, Schnittke and Lutosławski, brought to us by Deutsche Grammophon and performed stunningly by Denis Matsuev (piano) and the Kammerorchester Wein-Berlin.
The three works included in this outstanding recording are all very much of their epoch, but rooted firmly in musical language and conventions that make them accessible to any classical music lover.
Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto No.1 for Piano, Trumpet and String Orchestra Op.35 (1933)
Alfred Schnittke: Concerto for Piano and String Orchestra (1979)
Witold Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941)
For a second month in a row, my piano recording of the month choice comes from the fingers of a young player whose playing I did not immediately warm to, but who has more recently completely won me over.
Víkingur Ólafsson’s DG debut recording focused on the music of Philip Glass, while for his award-winning follow-up he turned to Bach, mixing the composer’s originals with transcriptions and various reworkings. The Icelandic pianist proved his mettle with an ultra-crystalline approach and technique that dazzled critics and music-lovers alike; but it left me just a little cold.
Ólafsson’s latest offering, bringing together a joyous collection of pieces by the French baroque master Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) interspersed and offset with an eclectic set of beloved and lesser-known pieces by Claude Debussy (1862-1918), is the clincher.
A disc replete with musical marvels, Ólafsson’s album of French keyboard wizardry is revelatory in its insights and deserves the highest plaudits…
As he did for many piano-lovers, Federico Colli first came to my attention when he appeared as a finalist at the Leeds International Piano Competition, which he went on to win in 2012. Since then he has established a successful performing career and has an exclusive recording deal with the Chandos label.
I have to confess that in 2012, Colli was not my favourite to win; nor was I enamoured with his Bach recording when I caught up with it last year.
However, seeing glowing reviews for his second CD of Scarlatti Sonatas elsewhere I took the plunge. And how glad I am, because it is stunning! I am finally a belated convert to Colli’s cause!
So what makes this recording special? Let’s find out…
The 22-year-old Chinese-American pianist Eric Lu is one of the brightest rising stars in today’s classical music firmament, his playing revealing both an exciting engagement with the repertoire and a fresh and compelling new perspective on it.
Aged 20, Lu was unanimously voted winner of the Leeds International Piano Competition 2018, an achievement which propelled him firmly into the limelight and rewarded him with a management deal, major label recording deal with Warner Classics, and a concert commitment which might overwhelm the less assured player.
For his part, Lu would seem to have taken all this in his stride, the embodiment of a dream he has nurtured from a young age growing up in a house where classical music was cherished.
I briefly met Lu and heard him perform Mozart’s 23rd concerto at the Chetham’s Summer School last year (shortly before he made his BBC Proms debut with the same work), and was struck then by his poise onstage and off, his quiet confidence and calm energy.
But listening to his Warner Classics studio debut, a disc which includes Chopin’s 24 Preludes Op.28 as well as short works by Brahms and Schumann, it is the emotional range he brings to his playing which most immediately strikes me…
New releases are usually a bit thin on the ground in January and this has proved true again in 2020, the respite providing the perfect chance to revisit the best albums of the last year.
2019 was a solid year for new jazz piano releases, many of which I have enjoyed repeatedly. Highlights have included Keith Jarrett’s superb Munich 2016 recording, Ahmad Jamal’s gorgeous Ballades, Abdullah Ibrahim’s Dream Time and Chick Corea’s double live trio CD Trilogy 2.
My personal favourite of the many good recent jazz albums has to be Hiromi Uehara’s Spectrum, however.
Following a succession of brilliant trio, ensemble and collaboration albums, Spectrum is Hiromi’s first solo piano studio album for a decade, and is a remarkable musical tour de force.
Speaking to The Japan Times, Hiromi said of the recording,
“As a pianist, making a solo album is really like, kind of being naked. There is nowhere to hide. There is no other instrument to play with in order to cover the sound. It’s really challenging, but at the same time, it’s the best way to fully enjoy this instrument… It’s like having a conversation with myself. I can be really free, if there is nobody there to restrain me. I can go anywhere that I want in improvisation.”
Following her superb recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 2017, leading classical music magazine Gramophone named Beatrice Rana Young Artist of the Year, noting:
“Young musicians usually impress in one of two different ways. One is to dazzle with the exuberance of youth, the sheer joy of their own talent and personality. It’s a hard thing to resist, but one would be wise to wonder if it will still be serving them so well a decade or so down the line. The other is to show technique, yes, but also the poise and wisdom often lazily assumed to be beyond the attainment of youth, but which, if you’ve got it, will surely never go away. A few minutes with the playing of Beatrice Rana leaves you in no doubt which category she is in.”
Two years later her latest recording, a dazzling account of music by Ravel and Stravinsky, further affirms Rana as one of the most extraordinary artists of our time.
No difficulty in selecting my Recording of the Month…
Undertaking a complete recording of the 32 published Piano Sonatas of Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) remains one of the monumental challenges for any concert pianist, and with the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth next year it’s likely that the many accounts on disc will come under greater comparative scrutiny than ever.
Enter Igor Levit, who has previously impressed critics and audiences around the world both in recital and on disc. A Sony Classics artist, Levit is flying the flag for one of the world’s largest labels with his new 9CD set of the Sonata cycle, released this month.
These are interpretations which inevitably face comparison with the legendary recordings by such luminaries as Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff and Friedrich Gulda, beloved cycles by Stephen Kovacevich, Alfred Brendel and Claudio Arrau, and the more recent accounts by Paul Lewis, András Schiff, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and (revelatory on fortepiano) Ronald Brautigam.
With such high stakes, let’s find out how Levit’s cycle fares …
2019 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Clara Schumann, who wan born on 13th September 1819. Right on cue, this new recording from Decca offers the perfect introduction to her music, as well as marking the solo recording debut of rising star Isata Kanneh-Mason…
Once in a while, I hear a new recording which not only introduces me to a rich seam of new repertoire, but which is quite simply mesmerising from start to finish. Elusive Affinity is Russian pianist Anna Gourari’s third recording for ECM recordings, and it is such a disc.
Juxtaposing a selection of tonal and non-tonal music, with a focus on pieces which explore musical connections and influences extending across the arts, Elusive Affinity is a genuinely astonishing album on every level, and a clear choice for Recording of the Month here on Pianodao.
Since winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2014, Martin James Bartlett has become a welcome and friendly presence in concert halls as in the media, while also pursuing his further studies as a Foundation Scholar at London’s Royal College of Music.
Having recently signed to major label Warner Classics, Martin’s debut album was released at the start of May.
Entitled “Love and Death”, the recording must I believe be regarded as marking a very significant arrival in the classical music world, Bartlett casting his spell with an imaginative programme of music by J.S. Bach, Franz Liszt, Enrique Granados and Sergei Prokofiev…
Fazil Say has established himself as one of the leading pianists and composers of his generation, but his multifaceted talent has sometimes left critics as perplexed as audiences are thrilled. He’s a hard man to categorise!
Say is equally at home performing and recoding the complete Sonatas of Mozart (released by Warner Classics in 2016 and available here) as he is when playing his own highly distinctive and imaginative compositions.
It is the latter which in my view confirm Say’s place in the upper echelons of the classical tradition, however. I love pieces such as the scintillating 1001 Nights in the Harem (a four-movement Violin Concerto), and the Hezarfen Concerto for Ney and Orchestra.
These have recently been joined on the top shelf by the stunning Troy Sonata, a near-40-minute solo piano work in ten movements, included as the centrepiece of his latest release, Fazil Say plays Say.
Say’s music has a vivid cinematic approach to storytelling, and draws on a smorgasbord of influences, from late Romanticism through to experimental modernism, while incorporating the colours of modern jazz: all unmistakably and decisively shot through with the spirit and culture of his native Turkey.
It makes for a unique and intoxicating blend with which, like his greatest composing forebears, Say’s personal voice emerges from an accomplished fusion of musical reference points.
Fazil Say Plays Say brings together a thrilling selection of Say’s most recent (and I believe finest) solo piano works. It’s an easy choice for Recording of the Month…
In his recent interview for Pianodao, concert pianist Martin Roscoe enthusiastically discussed his long-held ambition to record a complete series of the solo piano works of the great Hungarian composer and polymath Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960).
Now that ambition reaches its fulfilment, culminating in the fourth and final release in Roscoe’s recorded Dohnányi cycle for Hyperion Records, released this month, and an easy choice for Pianodao’s Recording of the Month.
I’ve been a fan of Dohnányi’s music for several years, not least knowing that my own teacher Joseph Weingarten had been one of his students in Budapest Academy. I’ve been collecting Roscoe’s recordings since the series started, and have been eagerly awaiting this final issue.
Before reviewing the CD itself, here’s a short introduction to the composer and music…
For her debut recording for Usk Recordings, pianist Natalia Williams-Wandoch has selected an intriguing programme of hitherto unrecorded music by the great, but somewhat neglected, English composer Arnold Bax.
As she writes in her excellent booklet notes,
“I hope that you will find this unique and rewarding music as bewitching as I have done”.
I’ve been enjoying the music of Düsseldorf-based German musician Tom Blankenberg for a few years now, since he first joined the Soundcloud community for pianists which I was running at the time.
And in the intervening years it has been a thrill to see his music develop, to hear that he was touring, and now that his debut album is recorded and released.
“Atermus” offers an accomplished and rounded set of reflective piano works, all superbly recorded (which is perhaps not surprising given Tom’s background as a sound designer and film editor who also records for media and advertising) and released on the Less Records label.
Talking about his piano music, which belongs to the new “neoclassical” or minimal stream, Tom says:
“I tend to call them Short Stories or Polaroids or sometimes even Calendar Sheets.”
A wonderful description, but see what you think for yourself. For me, this is one of the best contemplative and reflective piano albums I’ve heard – I love it!
I hope you will agree that from the experimental harmonies of opening track Tori and through 13 successive moments of musical beauty, concluding with the lusciously melodic November and warmly intimate Nesuto, this is a stunning album!
By the way, in case you were wondering, Tom tells me that the striking title ‘Atermus’ is just a meaningless word which occurred to him while recording:
“I like nonsense titles more that too discriptive ones…”
The album was recorded at Van Heys Studio, Kleve, and in Düsseldorf between November 2017-April 2018, and brings together pieces composed mostly between 2012 and 2018 (together with one earlier piece dating from 1987). The cover art, incidentally, is a reproduction of a work by Hiroshi Kjawano.
You can listen to the full album below, and it is also available on major streaming platforms or to purchase on CD or vinyl. Enjoy!
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