5 classical music albums to hear right now
Liza Lim: ‘Singing in Tongues’
Elision Ensemble (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)
Over the past decade, the reputation of Australian composer Liza Lim has grown steadily, with consistently strong chamber and orchestral albums released on top-flight experimental music labels like Wergo and Kairos.
“Singing in Tongues” collects vocal and operatic music written by Lim between 1993 and 2008 — all of it handled persuasively by her longtime collaborators in the Elision Ensemble. The earliest piece here is an abstract take on “The Oresteia.” Its airy extended techniques, snatches of luminous vocal harmony and gnarly full-ensemble blasts of sound give a sense of Lim’s approach to music drama: It’s more about traveling between timbres than it is about moving from one plot point to the next.
That approach has remained remarkably consistent, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t evolved. The most recent piece on the album — “The Navigator,” which concludes this set — is a magnum opus of slippery, sinuous invention. Fragments of the work have been available on YouTube, in Barrie Kosky’s staging. But this first full audio recording reveals Lim’s command of her style. As the piece progresses from a prologue written for an alto “Ganassi” recorder to the guitar-led opening of the first scene (“The Unwinding”), her skills as an avant-garde dramatist are on full display. — SETH COLTER WALLS
Igor Markevitch: The Deutsche Grammophon Legacy; The Philips Legacy
The recent rash of archival boxed sets dedicated to conductors has tended to be a painful reminder of just how narrow a repertoire some major artists took after World War II — with lasting consequences for the field. But these two enticing collections offer an exception to the rule.
Igor Markevitch, a polyglot, cosmopolitan figure who was born in the Kyiv of the late czarist empire but settled in Paris, was a major composer before he switched to the podium after the war, to the horror of Nadia Boulanger. He trained as a conductor with Pierre Monteux and Hermann Scherchen, sharing vivacity and rhythmic drive with the former and clarity and incision with the latter.
“My repertory runs from Purcell to Dallapiccola,” Markevitch said in 1957; for him, “versatility” was crucial if a musician were to understand where Stravinsky, a favorite of his, was really coming from. So along with wonderfully vibrant Haydn, committed Beethoven with not an ounce of heaviness and a Tchaikovsky cycle that has rarely been bettered since it was set down in the 1960s, these boxes find Markevitch leading Victoria, Berwald and Halffter, as well as exploring lesser-known Stravinsky and even the history of zarzuela. All of it is fresh, alive, essential — this was a real conductor. — DAVID ALLEN
Walter Piston: Concerto for Orchestra and Other Works
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor (BMOP/sound)
Along with championing living composers, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under its founding director, Gil Rose, has for 25 years been bringing renewed attention to mid-20th century Americans, as in this exceptional recording of works by Walter Piston (1894-1976).
The biggest discovery here is Piston’s 1933 Concerto for Orchestra, receiving its premiere recording. Piston is usually grouped with composers who hewed to American neoclassical styles. Yet elements of spiky modernism often run through his scores, as in this concerto. It opens with a marching, vibrant first movement, followed by a scherzo driven by perpetual-motion runs for strings.
The compelling third movement begins ominously, with a seemingly lugubrious passacaglia, the theme played low and haltingly by a tuba. The music becomes darker, more elusive and textured, with each variation as instruments enter, building steadily in intensity until a chorale calms things down, leading to an extended allegro alive with industrious counterpoint. The album includes a Stravinsky-influenced Divertimento for Nine Instruments; a pointillist and perky Clarinet Concerto, with Michael Norsworthy as soloist; and the premiere recording of Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill. — ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Vivaldi: ‘Cantate per Soprano I’
Arianna Vendittelli, soprano; Abchordis Ensemble; Andrea Buccarella, harpsichord and conductor (Naïve)
This is the latest installment in the expansive Vivaldi Edition on Naïve, which is capturing a huge trove of the master’s scores on record and is scheduled to culminate in 2027, the year before his 350th birthday. In a monthly review feature earlier this year, I wrote about an album of early-17th century chamber madrigals by Sigismondo d’India; these Vivaldi “cantate per soprano,” from roughly a century later, are an outgrowth of that form. While the subject matter is still love, in both contemporary and ancient settings, the poetry Vivaldi sets in his multipart alternations of recitative and arias is more pedestrian; he makes up for it with the increased vocal dazzle of the high baroque.
The virtuosity poses no problem for soprano Arianna Vendittelli — her tone floating, but also agile and forceful. Given intimate accompaniment by Andrea Buccarella and the Abchordis Ensemble, Vendittelli is responsive to the different moods of these six cantatas: the dreamy melancholy of “Aure, voi più non siete”; the tossed-off lightness of “Tra l’erbe i zeffiri” and “La farfalletta s’aggira al lume”; the dash of “Si levi dal pensier”; and the burning grandeur of “Sorge vermiglia in ciel la bella Aurora,” the album’s highlight. — ZACHARY WOOLFE
Pamela Z: ‘Echolocation’
(Freedom to Spend)
This year proved rewarding for fans of vocalist, composer and visual artist Pamela Z. Despite widespread performance cancellations because of the pandemic, she brought new works to the Prototype Festival in New York and to German radio. She also issued her second full-length solo recording, “A Secret Code,” while one of her pieces was included on a compilation album produced by the Resonant Bodies Festival.
And there’s time for one more offering from this veteran experimentalist. “Echolocation,” her long-out-of-print, cassette-only recording from 1988, has been reissued on the Freedom to Spend imprint. Its tracks include winning early takes of pieces like the chattering “Badagada” and the list-poem assemblage “Pop Titles ‘You’” — both of which are mainstays of her repertoire. But the rest of the set offers a rare look at this less documented period of her practice.
Given her skill at live looping and solo concertizing, it’s a treat to hear her in bandleader mode. The track “I Know” features synthesizers performed by Donald Swearingen; those keyboard motifs suggest an affinity for both 1980s new wave as well as some 1970s Philip Glass. And during “An In,” skeletal drum programming by Bill Stefanacci connects to the progressive pop of the era. Bridging these diverse reference points, as ever, is Z’s own virtuosic vocal technique, which incorporates her bel canto training as well as her eclectic listening, across genres. — SETH COLTER WALLS