The State of Classical Music 2009: Andras Schiff and Rolf Lislevand

C. Michael Bailey By

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Contrary to popular belief, "classical" music is not dull, static or lifeless. Rather, it is a dynamic creative event that is as fresh as its most recent performance. It is also untrue that improvisation has no place in "classical" performance. Both Mozart and Beethoven were very capable improvisers of their own and others' compositions.

Capturing these unconventional creative elements in recordings is what made ECM Records the Classic FM Gramophone Award 2009 Classical Label. Two splendid examples, one of the dynamism of the Baroque canon and one of the Renaissance improvisatory spirit, conveniently occupy overlapping release schedules. That is our good fortune.

Andras Schiff

Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Partitas

ECM Records


Hungarian pianist Andras Schiff recently completed his live survey of Beethoven Piano Sonatas to a great critical reception. But before Schiff addressed Beethoven there was Bach, and Schiff surveyed Baroque music's reformer for Decca in the 1980s. Since joining forces with ECM, Schiff has revisited his 1990 Decca recording of the Goldberg Variations (ECM, 2003). Schiff now returns to his 1985 Decca set of the Six Partitas, BWV 825 to BWV 830, recasting them in the closeness and warmth of the "ECM sound" plus 20 years additional study and experience.

Schiff is the premier Bach interpreter on modern piano. Richard Goode and Murray Perahia both have offered fine Bach recordings in recent years, all certainly worthy competition. But there remains Schiff at the top. Glenn Gould, you ask? Gould paved the way for Bach performance on piano, but in a highly personal (read, idiosyncratic) style. Schiff's Bach, particularly his recent Goldberg Variations and now the Partitas, are among the most transparent performances on record. Schiff honed this act of transparency on his Beethoven Sonatas and the exercise has well served him.

Schiff's currently informed approach to Bach offers an interesting contrast to that of Till Fellner's highly personal and exuberantly tuneful Inventionen und Sinfonien / Franzesische Suite V (2009, ECM). Fellner's Bach sings in celebration where Schiff's Bach lays bare the composer's spiritual psyche, the exquisite distillate of all of his, and Bach's, shared experiences. Schiff is not beyond adding his personal touch. The pianist reorders the Partitas according to ascending keys from G major to E minor (5-3-1-2- 4-6) based on performance experience, reasoning that it provides greater dynamism in complete performance.

This is an exceptional performance of the Partitas. Schiff has gleaned much from his previous Bach recordings (as well as his Mozart and Beethoven). This is perfectly rendered Bach, easy to understand and digest and a subtle joy to which to listen. Schiff's current thinking allows Bach's essence to emerge naturally during performance, "Like pious incense from a censer old / Seem'd taking flight for heaven." Schiff never allows his respect and reverence of Bach to stifle the spirit of his playing, making these Partitas among the best on record.

Visit Andras Schiff on the web.

Rolf Lislevand Ensemble


ECM Records


Norwegian master lutenist Rolf Lislevand debuted in 2006 with his well received Nuove Musiche (ECM). That recording was devoted to an in vitro interpretation of early Italian Baroque songs from the late 17th century. Lislevand moves forward by going back to the 16th century where seconda practica monophony meets prima practica polyphony.

As with Nuove Musiche, Lislevand is interested in the music of Venetian Italy in the northern part of the country. Here, during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, European, Middle Eastern and Oriental cultures blended in commerce and art. The resulting music, in the words of Lislevand, is "all about the Italian renaissance, how it understood it self, how we understand it today and how we would have understood it if we had been contemporary with it." It is in the latter of these observations where Lislevand and his ensemble practice their musical alchemy of improvisation intermingling the historic.

The pieces selected were composed by the little known in the far distant past. Like the light of ancient stars arriving to earth's eyes mellennia after its creation, this music strikes the modern auditory system as both old and new. Medieval Europe is heard in the voices of Trio Mediaeval on Vencenzo Capiroia's "Ricercate" and Giovanni Antonio Terzi's "Petit Jacquet Quinta Pars." The Middle and Far Eastern can be heard in the complex linear melodies generated by Lislevand's deft lute and the strings of Giovanni Pessi, Marco Ambrosini and Thor Harald Johnsen.

Common to the entire disc is Lislevand's vision and performance. He widens the niche begun with Nuove Musiche, exposing a richer trove of music with which to celebrate in both rote and improvised performance. This is ancient music that breathes from a time that measured itself with the hollow strike of a drum, outside, in celebration.

Visit Rolf Lislevand on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Johann Sebastian Bach: Six Partitas

Tracks: CD 1: Partita V in G major BWV 829; Partita III in a minor BWV 827; Partita I in B-flat major BWV 825; Partita II in c minor BWV 826. CD 2: Partita IV in D major BWV 828; Partita VI in e minor BWV 830.

Personnel: Andras Schiff: piano.


Tracks: Ricercate; Saltarello; Piva; Petit Jacquet; Quinta Pars; La Perrs Mora; Susanne un jour; Recercada Settina; Canon La Spanga Gaillard Fecercada Segunda; Fantasia que contrahaze la Harpa en la manera se Luduvico.

Personnel: Rolf Lislevand: lutes; vihuela de mano; Linn Andrea Fuglseth: voice; Anna Maria Friman: voice; Giovanna Pessi: triple harp; Marco Ambrosini: nyckleharpa battente, vihuela de mano, lutes; Michael Behringer: clavichord, organ; Bjorn Kjellemyr: colascione; David Mayoral: percussion.

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