5 classic albums to listen to right now
Lucerne Symphony Orchestra; Paul Jacobs, organ; James Gaffigan, conductor (Harmonia Mundi)
How daring to call an album “Americans”. And so much to deliver: a theme with almost endless programming possibilities, and a concept under intense scrutiny these days, as classical musicians grapple with the history of the exclusion of the United States in the concert hall.
It’s a bit odd, then, that while some recent recording projects have focused on works by little-known composers, this one has made room for two by Samuel Barber. Don’t let this be a deal breaker, however. This album, by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, conducted with a brilliant ear for detail and clarity by James Gaffigan, begins with a harsh rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story”, but improves as time goes by. and as it goes, ending with two rare gems. Before these come Ives’ Third Symphony – the complexity behind his quilt of folk songs and dances here gently revealed – and Barber’s first overture to “The School for Scandal”.
There is an abrupt departure in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for strings, adapted from her String Quartet – composed in the early 1930s, like Barber’s overture, yet decidedly modernist. This is the climax of the album, catchy and prismatic, a slow burning of dense counterpoint. Even more disorienting is a finale in the form of Barber’s “Toccata Festiva”, a concerto-like monster featuring an electrifying Paul Jacobs on the organ. Together, these two pieces form a fantastic ending to a program that could have used their idiosyncratic wit more from the start. JOSHUA BARONE
Jihye Lee Orchestra (Motéma)
When Jihye Lee arrived at Berklee College of Music in 2011, it was as a singer. But she also wanted to write. She jumped at the chance try out jazz composition, even if she didn’t have extensive experience in the genre.
She acquired this baggage, quickly. And also quickly found a way to add her voice to the jazz lineage, releasing her debut album in 2017 and winning the annual BMI Foundation award. Charlie Parker Composition Prize in 2018. While Lee’s second album as a songwriter, “Daring Mind,” clearly draws inspiration from other progressive big band composers, such as Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue (who produced this disc), it has its own style. Its crisp arrangements balance frenetic virtuosity with an overall reflexive vibe.
On “Relentless Mind”, traces of minimalist ideas infiltrate, while the melodic motifs expand and contract over the swing riffs. Yet this piece ends before the nervous angst often associated with minimalism. Lee shows no signs of reluctance to take his place in the tradition; The ‘Daring Mind’ strut is a reminder of a definition of jazz once proposed by Wayne Shorter: “I defy you.” SETH COOLING WALLS
‘Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price’
Samantha Ege, piano (Lorelt)
Florence Price’s revival continues. In recent weeks, the Philadelphia Orchestra ad that he would record Price’s symphonies under Yannick Nézet-Séguin; the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective published a wonderful first recording his Piano Quintet in A minor on Chandos; and musicologists Douglas W. Shadle and Samantha Ege gave an opinion that they write a biography of this long neglected composer.
Much of this new prominence is due to the work of a community of scholar-interpreters like Ege, of whom nine-tenths New album is based on manuscripts retrieved from Price’s former summer residence in 2009. There are intriguing miniatures here, including a series of “snapshots” written just before Price’s death in 1953, but the emphasis is put on four named pieces “Negro Fantasy”, dating from 1929-33.
Loose sets of variations on spirituals and melodies similar in the language of Price’s late Romanticism – scented with pentatonic scales and enriched with a teeming sense of form – these are enormous works. Especially the fourth, which Price at one point marked “Out of the Crucible” – a nod, Ege writes, to “his own triumphs over adversity.” Triumphs indeed, and if one can now imagine some of this music performed with more flair, it is a testament to how Ege gave this music the life it deserves more than it deserves. DAVID ALLEN
Jean Rondeau, harpsichord and polygonal virginal (Erato)
As on his last album “Barricades”, harpsichordist Jean Rondeau lingers on the opening notes of his new album, “Melancholy Grace”, like a roller coaster car slowing down as it reaches the top before its first dive. And then it goes – although it is not the French Baroque dazzling of the “Barricades”, but moving, often sober Italian and English pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The atmosphere is melancholy, certainly, but not very oppressive; Rondeau’s touch and rhythm are so varied that even this program of largely related works seems to cover an entire sonic universe. Offering us 80 minutes of exceptionally generous music, he alternates sets between a sumptuously metallic harpsichord and a 16th-century polygonal virginal or arpicordo, which has both a softer, milder tone and a more pronounced snap. (It’s irresistible.)
Some of the composers are obscure, though you’ll remember Luigi Rossi after hearing the rich passacaglia scratching featured here, and Antonio Valente for a gently painful piece. Opening the recording with a Frescobaldi toccata, Rondeau places two more – the first imposing, the second lush and lonely, a child playing in an empty castle – at its center. Melancholy doesn’t just mean slow here; Rondeau unleashes fiery fireworks in a feverish dance by Giovanni Picchi, which he repeats twice in a row during this magnificent album. ZACHARY WOOLFE
‘Mozart Momentum: 1785’
Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and conductor (Sony Classical)
The superb pianist Leif Ove Andsnes considers 1785 to be a pivotal year in Mozart’s career, reflected in particular in the works for the piano. To make his case, Andsnes released an album dedicated to that year, including three concertos performed with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he also conducts.
As Andsnes explains in the liner notes, he sees two seemingly contrasting concertos – the somber and turbulent No.20 in D minor and the Sunny and Serene No.21 in C – as partners, both digging into the concerto genre. and experimenting with the relationship between soloist and orchestra. He plays with elegance, clarity and attention to detail.
I was particularly impressed by his magnificent recital of Concerto No. 22 in E flat, less often heard. Andsnes takes a subdued, almost interrogative approach to the refined and complex first movement, and makes every note count in a sparkling rendition of the lively finale. The album includes Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor (with three musicians from the Mahler Orchestra), “Masonic Funeral Music” and Fantasy in C minor for solo piano – all performed wonderfully. ANTHONY TOMMASINI