The 8 most alluring classical recordings of the year, so far

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As concert halls sit silent during the coronavirus pandemic, recordings never have seemed more important.

With that in mind, here are one listener’s choices for the most enticing classical releases of the year to date:

1. “Through Time and Place: Compositions by James Lentini”

This gathering of significant works by American composer James Lentini comes at precisely the right moment, for his scores inspire hope and faith, as the recording eloquently attests. Spanning 1994 through 2010, the compositions collected here range from orchestral tone poems to a profoundly philosophical symphony, from purely instrumental work to solo-choral-orchestral pieces. The title composition, Lentini’s Symphony No. 1, stands as the recording’s centerpiece, sumptuously performed by the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, Ricardo Averbach conducting. A major statement, the opus opens with “Reflection,” a first movement that combines sweeping lyricism with virtuosic orchestral writing. The perpetual-motion passages of “A New Destiny,” the second movement, give way to passages of a questing nature, underscoring the work’s depth and rigor. Lentini’s celebratory Sinfonia di Festa (1996) evokes shades of Howard Hanson, yet it manages to convey grandeur while maintaining textural transparency (in a performance by the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Anthony Iannaccone). And Lentini’s “Three Sacred Meditations” ranks alongside the best writing of composer Peter Lieberson via soaring vocal lines, emotional urgency and glistening orchestration (performed by soprano Dana Lentini, the composer’s wife, and the Wayne State University Symphonic Chorus & Orchestra, led by Norah Duncan IV). In all, music that rewards repeated hearings. (Navona Records)

2. Joshua Pierce: “Bravura: Favorite Showpieces for Piano & Orchestra”

Consider this recording the musical equivalent of summertime beach reading, Pierce taking on glittery, concerto-like works that would tax any pianist’s fingers. So though no one is going to confuse these pieces with counterparts by Beethoven or Brahms, there’s immediate pleasure in hearing Pierce romp through all manner of technical hurdles. Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto” opens the program, Pierce tempering its hyper-romanticism with welcome digital clarity. Pierce’s approach to Gershwin’s Variations on “I Got Rhythm” leans more toward its classical than jazz influences, meaning a bit more snap and rhythmic drive would have been preferred. But there’s plenty of sparkle and grace in his reading of Saint-Saens’ Caprice-Valse, “Wedding Cake.” And Pierce offers the world-premiere recording of Paul Turok’s Ragtime Caprice, a Joplin-meets-Liszt affair that provides ample keyboard fireworks. (MSR Classics)

3. Eighth Blackbird: “Singing in the Dead of Night”

Are there any limits to the sonic inventions Eighth Blackbird is capable of? Apparently not, judging by “Singing in the Dead of Night,” in which the relentlessly creative ensemble takes on a suite of works composed by Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. Though each of the pieces is named for a line from Paul McCartney’s lyrics to the Beatles classic “Blackbird,” do not expect to hear hummable ditties. Instead, the ensemble conjures high-pitched tintinnabulation, darkly brooding lines, minimalist pitch pulsing, vast waves of sound, driving rhythmic momentum, a riot of instrumental color and more. (Cedille Records)

4. Will Liverman and Jonathan King: “Whither Must I Wander”

Bravo to any singer who refuses to recognize an hierarchy among classical, folkloric, traditional and spiritual songs. Certainly baritone Liverman does not, as the music here shows. The plush but focused baritone he applies to a range of repertoire points to a singer (and Ryan Opera Center alum) very much on the way up. He conjures a range of vocal shadings in Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Songs of Travel,” characterful interpretations in James Frederick Keel’s “Three Salt-Water Ballads,” a sense of reverie and stillness in Aaron Copland’s “At the River,” and ardent delivery in the traditional “Ten Thousand Miles Away.” Pianist King, a deft and sensitive accompanist, stays with him every step of the way. (Odradek Records)

5. Marc-Andre Hamelin: “Samuil Feinberg: Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-6”

Marc-Andre Hamelin has done a service for pianophiles by recording these sonatas of the eminent but unjustly overlooked Russian pianist-composer Samuil Feinberg (1890-1962). Not surprisingly, these works bear the influence of other Russian piano masters, most notably Scriabin and Rachmaninoff, though they’re not quite as hysterical as the former, nor as openly romantic as the latter. Beyond their obvious technical demands, these sonatas require an interpreter who understands the ebb and flow of their melodic lines, the underlying tension of their rhythmic vocabulary and their inherent sensuousness of sound. Pianist Hamelin offers hyperpolished performances, making a compelling case for each of the works, particularly the most ambitious of them all, No. 3. (Hyperion Records)

6. An Tran: “Stay, My Beloved: Vietnamese Guitar Music”

Not every classical recording deals in abstruse complexities. Guitarist An Tran, for instance, says a great deal via straightforward compositions inspired by folkloric idioms. In “Stay, My Beloved,” Tran embraces his Vietnamese heritage, performing suites and traditional folk songs that are sweet in tone, warm in gesture and open in expression. The tone painting he conjures in Nguyen The An’s “The Legend of the Bamboo Child,” the tenderness he brings to The An’s “Lullaby” (in a world-premiere recording) and the pictorial qualities of other works point to the sensitivity and care the guitarist applies to everything he plays. (Frameworks Records)

7. Civitas Ensemble: “Jin Yin”

As always, Chicago’s Civitas Ensemble takes us into unfamiliar sonic realms. This time, it’s world premiere compositions and arrangements by Chinese composers, the album’s title translating to “Golden Tone.” One marvels at the array of timbre these musicians produce, as in the lustrous tones of Zhou Long’s “Five Elements” (with Yihan Chen playing pipa, Cynthia Yeh percussion and Emma Gerstein flute and piccolo); the mystical qualities and enigmatic silences of Chen Yi’s “Night Thoughts”; and the sheer technical wizardry the musicians produce in Vivian Fung’s “Bird Song.” A tour de force of contemporary Chinese music. (Cedille Records).

8. Lori Sims, Andrew Rathbun, Jeremy Siskind: “Impressions of Debussy”

Debussy’s Preludes stand as milestones in the piano repertory and, of course, have been copiously recorded. This album goes a step further, with Sims playing select preludes as written, her readings followed by reimaginings of the same works by soprano saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and pianist Jeremy Siskind. Revelations abound, not only via Sim’s finely wrought interpretations of the originals but in Rathbun’s and Siskind’s improvisations on them. In each instance, the listener travels from a high-toned performance of a familiar work to a new conception that opens up its motifs, rhythms and harmonies. All of which underscores Debussy’s enduring value to the worlds of both classical and jazz performance. (Centaur Records)


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