Summer is a great time to stir up a pitcher of margaritas, lie back on the lawn chair, put in the earbuds and listen to some great music. Streaming may be all the rage nowadays, but the vibrant classical music recording industry continues to release outstanding new compact discs and downloads.
Here are four new releases that sound especially good on a hot summer day.
“American Symphony — Finding Rothko — Picture Studies” by Adam Schoenberg
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At the top of the list is the latest recording from the Kansas City Symphony conducted by Michael Stern. The disc is devoted to three works by 36-year-old composer Adam Schoenberg: “American Symphony,” “Finding Rothko” and “Picture Studies.”
“American Symphony” and “Picture Studies” were commissioned by the Kansas City Symphony. This CD should dispel any doubts that good classical music is still being written today.
Schoenberg is a masterful orchestrator, and his use of orchestral color serves him well in music inspired by the visual arts. “Finding Rothko” captures the abstract artist’s rapturous spirituality, and “Picture Studies,” Schoenberg’s answer to Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” brings masterpieces from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art vividly to life.
Stern deserves a lot of credit for having the vision to commission these works. He has a superb ear for new music that is vibrant and engages audiences but doesn’t pander. Reference Recordings, which recorded the CD in Helzberg Hall, once again delivers stunning sound that is even more mind-blowing in Super Audio.
“Visions” by Véronique Gens
French soprano Véronique Gens is best known for her work with early music ensembles like Les Arts Florissants. Even though she’s a baroque and Mozart specialist, her lustrous voice lends itself well to music of the Romantic era.
On her latest CD, “Visions,” Gens turns her attention to the opulent operatic repertoire of 19th-century France. The combination of achingly romantic melodies and Gens’ ravishing voice sends chills down the spine.
“Visions” will please opera newbies and connoisseurs weary of the same old same old. Every aria on the disc is a rarity and every one is a winner. Familiar composers like Camille Saint-Saëns, Georges Bizet and Jules Massenet are represented, but Gens avoids their greatest hits and instead uncovers gems from their forgotten operas. This is a CD to cherish.
“Rímur” by Trio Mediaeval and Arve Henriksen
Combining medieval and Renaissance music with jazz is not a new concept. In 1994, ECM released the groundbreaking “Officium,” Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble’s unique take on Renaissance polyphony.
Perhaps trying to recapture some of that magic, ECM has just released “Rímur,” featuring Trio Mediaeval performing with Norwegian jazz trumpeter Arve Henriksen. No mere “Officium” copycat, “Rímur” is unique and should please anyone looking for something completely different.
Recorded in a remote location on Norway’s west coast, “Rímur” has an ancient, minimalist sound that is refreshing in this era of overproduced blockbusters. As the three women of Trio Mediaeval sing and chant Icelandic sagas, folk tunes and religious melodies, Henriksen provides a tasteful trumpet accompaniment that, at times, sounds more like an ancient Viking horn call than modern jazz.
“Over the Plains, Symphony No. 4 ‘1942’ and Symphony No. 5 ‘Joyous’ ” by George Antheil
Until recently, American composer George Antheil has been a footnote in music history. Mostly known for his Dadaist “Ballet Mécanique,” a truly oddball work scored for player pianos, airplane propellers and assorted other machinery, Antheil is so much more, as a brand new release from Chandos demonstrates. The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds gives a superlative performance of Antheil’s quintessentially American music.
“Over the Plains,” which opens the disc, sounds like a blend of Aaron Copland and George Gershwin, with a certain undefinable “something.” That something would be Antheil. No matter how much his music recalls other American composers, Antheil’s sound is unique and appealing.
The two major works on the CD are the Symphony No 4 “1942” and Symphony No. 5 “Joyous.” Antheil was composing at a time when modernists were not afraid of connecting with their audience, and his symphonies are definitely quirky and avant-garde, but also a lot of fun. Chandos has done Antheil and music lovers a big favor with this disc, and one hopes this is the first of many to come.
On a side note, Antheil’s ingenious way with mechanical objects got him inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. He and actress Hedy Lamarr invented a very effective radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes in 1941, using a technique called frequency hopping. Antheil and Lamarr’s remarkable invention is still used today in telecommunications.