5 classical music albums to listen to right now
Liza Lim: “Singing in Tongues”
Elision Ensemble (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)
Over the past decade, Australian composer Liza Lim’s reputation has grown steadily, with consistently strong chamber and orchestral albums released on leading experimental music labels like Wergo and Kairos.
“Singing in Tongues” brings together vocal and lyrical music written by Lim between 1993 and 2008 – all handled convincingly by his longtime collaborators within the Elision Ensemble. The first piece here is an abstract version of “L’Orestie”. His expansive and airy techniques, snippets of luminous vocal harmony, and ensemble sonic explosions give a sense of Lim’s approach to musical drama: it’s more about traveling between timbres than moving from one plot point to another.
This approach has remained remarkably consistent, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved. The album’s most recent track – ‘The Navigator’, which concludes this set – is a magnum opus of slippery, meandering invention. Fragments of the work are available on YouTube, staged by Barrie Kosky. But this first full audio recording reveals Lim’s mastery of his style. As the piece progresses from a prologue written for a “Ganassi” alto recorder to the guitar opening of the first scene (“The Unwinding”), his talents as an avant-garde dramatist are on full display.
SETH COLTER WALLS
The recent wave of archival box sets dedicated to conductors has tended to serve as a painful reminder of how narrow the repertoire of some major artists was after World War II – with lasting consequences for the field. But these two tantalizing collections are exceptions to the rule.
Igor Markevich, a polyglot and cosmopolitan character born in the Kiev of the defunct tsarist empire but living in Paris, was a major composer before rocking on the podiums after the war, to the great displeasure of Nadia Boulanger. He trained in conducting with Pierre Monteux and Hermann Scherchen, sharing liveliness and rhythmic momentum with the former, clarity and incision with the latter.
“My repertoire ranges from Purcell to Dallapiccola,” Markevitch said in 1957; for him, “versatility” was crucial for a musician to understand where Stravinsky, one of his favorites, really came from. So, with wonderfully vibrant Haydn, Beethoven engaged without an ounce of heaviness, and a Tchaikovsky Cycle rarely improved since its inception in the 1960s, these boxes find Markevitch leading Victoria, Berwald, and Halffter, as well as lesser explorations. known Stravinsky and even the history of zarzuela. Everything is fresh, alive, essential, he was a real conductor.
Walter Piston: Concerto for Orchestra and Other Works
Boston Modern Orchestra Project; Gil Rose, conductor (BMOP/sound)
In addition to championing living composers, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, under the direction of its founding director, Gil Rose, has for 25 years brought renewed attention to mid-twentieth-century Americans, as in this outstanding recording of works by Walter Piston (1894-1976).
The biggest find here is Piston’s Concerto for Orchestra from 1933, which receives its first recording. Piston is generally grouped with composers who drew inspiration from American neo-classical styles. Yet elements of sharp modernism often run through his scores, as in this concerto. It opens with a running and vibrant first movement, followed by a scherzo driven by perpetual motion runs for strings.
The compelling third movement begins ominously, with a seemingly mournful passacaglia, the theme played low and hesitantly by a tuba. The music becomes darker, more elusive and textured, each variation as the instruments enter, gradually increasing in intensity until a chorale calms things down, leading to an extended allegro alive with industrious counterpoint. The album includes a Divertimento for nine instruments influenced by Stravinsky; a pointillist and perky Concerto for clarinet, with Michael Norsworthy as soloist; and the first recording of Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill.
Vivaldi: ‘Cantata for Soprano I’
Arianna Vendittelli, soprano; Abchordis Ensemble; Andrea Buccarella, harpsichord and conductor (Naïve)
It is the latest installment in Vivaldi’s extensive edition to Naïve, which captures a huge amount of the master’s recorded scores and is set to peak in 2027, the year before his 350th birthday. In a monthly column earlier this year, I wrote about an album of early 17th-century chamber madrigals by Sigismondo of India; these “cantata per soprano” by Vivaldi, dating from about a century later, are an outgrowth of this form. While the subject is still love, in contemporary and ancient contexts the poetry that Vivaldi stages in his multi-part alternations of recitative and arias is more pedestrian; it is made up for by the increased vocal brilliance of the high baroque.
Virtuosity is no problem for soprano Arianna Vendittelli — her floating tone, but also agile and energetic. Accompanied intimately by Andrea Buccarella and the Abchordis Ensemble, Vendittelli is sensitive to the different moods of these six cantatas: the dreamy melancholy of “Aure, voi più non siete”; the tousled lightness of “Tra l’erbe i zeffiri” and “La farfalletta s’aggira al lume”; the hyphen of “Si levi dal pensier”; and the searing grandeur of ‘Sorge vermiglia in ciel la bella Aurora’, the highlight of the album.
Pamela Z: “Echolocation”
(freedom to spend)
This year has proven to be rewarding for fans of singer, songwriter and visual artist Pamela Z. Despite many performance cancellations due to the pandemic, she brought new work to New York’s Prototype Festival and German radio. . She also released her second full-length solo recording, “A Secret Code”, while one of her tracks appeared on a compilation album produced by the Resonant Bodies Festival.
And there’s time for another offering from this seasoned experimenter. “Echolocation”, his long out of print 1988 cassette recording, has been reissued on the Freedom to Spend imprint. His tracks include winning first takes of tracks like the chattering “Badagada” and the poem-list assembly “Pop Titles ‘You'” – both of which are mainstays of his repertoire. But the rest of the set offers a rare look at this less documented period of his practice.
Given his ability to loop live and concert solo, it’s a treat to hear him in conductor mode. The track “I Know” features synthesizers performed by Donald Swearingen; these keyboard patterns suggest an affinity for 1980s new wave as well as some 1970s Philip Glass. And during “An In,” Bill Stefanacci’s skeletal drum lineup connects with the era’s progressive pop. Bridging these diverse reference points, as always, is Z’s own virtuoso vocal technique, which incorporates both his bel canto training and his eclectic listening, across genres.
SETH COLTER WALLS