5 Classical Albums to Hear Right Now
Haydn: Piano Sonatas
Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi)
Not all that long ago was a drearier time, when Haydn’s piano sonatas were taken less seriously than those of Mozart and Beethoven. That’s certainly not the case now, at least on record. Marc-André Hamelin brought out a wonderful selection on Hyperion around a decade ago, his brilliance tempered with elegance; Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s ongoing survey on Chandos is one of the glories of the 21st-century record industry, nine volumes and counting of playing that is poised and polished, as well as ideally flamboyant and aptly witty.
Paul Lewis offers a different take on Haydn, one that hears him very much through the music of Beethoven and Schubert that would follow — although this makes sense, as this pianist’s Beethoven and Schubert have always been conceived in a Classical vein. The first volume of Lewis’s Haydn was excellent, if perhaps just a tad self-serious for this composer’s absurdities. This second volume — containing four sonatas, including No. 20 and 31, the aphoristic No. 51 and the symphonic No. 52 — is exceptional, further confirming Lewis as our finest, most purely eloquent pianist of the great Viennese masters. DAVID ALLEN
Juilliard String Quartet: The Early Columbia Recordings, 1949-56
When the Juilliard String Quartet was founded in 1946, a central part of its mission was to “play new works with a reverence usually reserved for the classics,” in the words of William Schuman, the Juilliard School’s president at the time and the quartet’s founder. Just how large that commitment to new music loomed in its early years can be gauged from this engrossing 16-disc box set of its earliest recordings for the Columbia label, many appearing on disc for the first time.
What other quartet of that era would have made its recorded debut not with standard repertoire but with a cantata by Darius Milhaud, written just a few years before? There are works here by composers both renowned (Berg, Webern, Copland) and virtually forgotten (Peter Mennin, Alexei Haieff), all rendered in the Juilliard’s trademark sound: X-ray clear and devoid of schmaltz. You don’t encounter any music written before the 20th century — two Mozart quartets — until Disc 13.
Two complete cycles anchor the set: Bartok (the first recording of his six quartets) and Schoenberg. Given how unfamiliar these works were at the time, the Juilliard’s confidence and authority is stunning. Subsequent recordings may have disclosed other aspects of this repertory, but that does not dampen the freshness and sense of discovery audible here. DAVID WEININGER
Annea Lockwood: ‘Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point’
Yarn/Wire; Nate Wooley, trumpet (Black Truffle)
In 2017, the Black Truffle imprint reissued “Tiger Balm,” a 1970 tape piece by Annea Lockwood — and paired it with fresh recordings of two other Lockwood works from the late 20th century. For its follow-up with the same composer, the label is focusing on newer efforts.
“Becoming Air/Into the Vanishing Point” presents material developed in collaboration with key figures from the contemporary music scene. Both the trumpeter Nate Wooley (the soloist on “Becoming Air”) and the members of the percussion and piano quartet Yarn/Wire (featured on “Vanishing Point”) have spent their careers swimming in experimental pools that Lockwood helped fill. They play these subtly restless new works with unmistakable devotion and excitement.
“Becoming,” for trumpet and electronics, asks Wooley to exercise his extended-technique chops — sometimes pristine, sometimes gravelly, generally whisper-quiet — in sections that pass without adornment, between ritualistic gong thwacks. But toward the end of the 19-minute work, Wooley’s tone is wildly amplified, with keening blasts of distortion that still manage to feel controlled.
Equally hypnotic is “Vanishing,” which also offers a late surprise. Here, after an extended period of mellow bumping and scraping, slow moving figures in one piano’s lowest register wipe away the casual chaos of the early minutes, and help steer the work into a mysterious port. SETH COLTER WALLS
‘On DSCH’: Works by Shostakovich and Stevenson
Igor Levit, piano (Sony)
The brilliant pianist Igor Levit is drawn to sweeping projects, like his recent set of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas. For his latest album he pairs Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and Fugues — some two and a half hours of music — with the Scottish composer Ronald Stevenson’s “Passacaglia on DSCH,” a 90-minute suite in three parts that pays tribute to Shostakovich.
Shostakovich wrote his preludes and fugues over a few months in 1950 and ’51, inspired by hearing the pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva performing Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The preludes are wondrously varied in character and approach; the fugues range from seemingly straightforward contrapuntal excursions to formidably complex, hard-driving statements. The overall style is lucidly Neo-Classical, at least on the surface; below that surface, though, the pieces are alive with wayward sonorities, elusive intricacies and dark subtexts. Levit plumbs these elements in commanding accounts.
Stevenson’s massive, craggy score, mostly written in 1961, includes wildly diverse pieces: strangely playful dances, brutal marches, brooding ruminations, frenzied fantasies, diabolical études, all building to a triple fugue. The technical hurdles are nothing for Levit, who plays with color, sweep and intensity. ANTHONY TOMMASINI
“Sweet Land” — a phantasmagoric abstraction of American history, and of the impossibility of knowing its truth — might have been the opera the country needed most in 2020. The pandemic prematurely ended the work’s premiere run, produced by the Industry in Los Angeles, but it has lived on: first as a video capture posted online, and now as an excellent, hauntingly horrifying album.
The show always had elements of “choose your own adventure”: Audience members bought tickets to discrete “tracks,” and few ever saw the entire opera. (Besides which, improvisations made each performance unique.) The choices continue, with two versions of the recording. Streaming services like Spotify are offering an abbreviation of the work that still captures the distinct yet blended sounds of the work’s two composers, Du Yun and Raven Chacon, and the poetry of the librettists, Aja Couchois Duncan and Douglas Kearney. Missing, though, is the opera’s conceit of seeing the same story twice, warped by mythologizing and erasure.
For that, you would have to — and should — hear the complete edition, available on Bandcamp. Recorded live, then supplemented by studio sessions, the album is intensely intimate. Most immediate and thrilling are the extended vocal technique feats of Carmina Escobar and Micaela Tobin as Coyote, and Sharon Chohi Kim as Wiindigo. And the closing scene, “Echoes and Expulsions,” has lost none of its power. As it did in person, this collage of monologues and choruses obliquely yet indelibly asks: For whom is this land so sweet? JOSHUA BARONE
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