A Salieri opera, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and the pianist Stephen Hough are among the highlights.
‘A Record Of …’
Buke and Gase and So Percussion
The indie-rock duo Buke and Gase has long found champions in the contemporary classical world, at least as far back as the 2010 iteration of the annual marathon organized by the new-music collective Bang On a Can. In recent years, the duo’s lead singer, Arone Dyer, has also started writing for other performers, like Bec Plexus. On this new collaborative set with So Percussion, Buke and Gase’s rhythmically surprising, grungy work occasionally takes on a newly warm tinge. (Most of the album’s tracks were composed collaboratively by members of both groups.)
Dreamy vibraphone, mellow kalimba and pinging glockenspiel offer enchanting support for Dyer’s siren-song refrains on the first track, “Diazepam.” Buke and Gase’s characteristic use of kick drum, overseen by Aron Sanchez, the duo’s other member and a multi-instrumentalist, provides gentle yet dramatic propulsion. So Percussion’s contributions aren’t solely subtle; they also make more galvanic numbers — like “Wake for Yourself” and “Ancient Tool Gadget” — thrum with unexpected accents and harmonies. The result is a fusion that’s fluid instead of forced. SETH COLTER WALLS
Colin Davis, conductor (Eloquence)
Whether it was the coronavirus or a coincidence, Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year, 2020, was a bit of a disappointment when it came to recordings. Of the mighty symphonies, for example, only a few new interpretations made much of a mark.
Rereleases have been another matter. Hermann Scherchen’s bracing cycle from the 1950s made our annual list of best albums, and there’s a valuable set here as well. Colin Davis would go on make a refined survey with the Staatskapelle Dresden in the 1990s, one that recalled Otto Klemperer in its power and strength. If you can already hear something of its breadth in these earlier accounts — taped mostly with the BBC and London symphonies in the 1970s and long unavailable — there is an extra alertness that often pays dividends, despite lesser orchestral playing.
Bundled with a host of overtures, sparkling piano concertos with Stephen Kovacevich and even a pair of Masses, the “Eroica” is vibrant, grand but not imposing; the Fourth is amiable, yet convincing; the Fifth has force and the Seventh has fire. Best of all are a pair of Sixths that unfold steadily and generously, bringing a smile to the face — like so many of this conductor’s understanding, uniquely humane performances. DAVID ALLEN
Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Daniel Bjarnason, conductor; Pekka Kuusisto, violin; Mario Caroli, flute (Sono Luminus)
ISO Project, the Iceland Symphony’s three-album survey of its country’s contemporary music, comes to a close with “Occurrence.” Like the other installments, “Recurrence” (2017) and “Concurrence” (2019), it’s approachably packaged, a handful of likable works clocking in at the length of a modest concert — which is how they’ve been presented, conducted by Daniel Bjarnason in Reykjavik.
“Occurrence” opens with Bjarnason’s Violin Concerto, composed for Pekka Kuusisto and toured widely since its premiere in 2017. One of those stops was the New York Philharmonic, where the piece seemed so tailored to Kuusisto, his daring yet graceful shifts between singing melodies and extended technique, that it was difficult to imagine anyone else as the soloist. The album strips away Kuusisto’s stage presence — so compelling in the introduction’s charismatic whistles and pizzicato, like something out of an Andrew Bird song — and leaves only the notes. What remains is overlong, perhaps, but includes some of the finest violin writing in recent years.
Veronique Vaka’s “Lendh” (2019) operates on a geologic scale, with tectonic bass textures and a slowly changing shape that can appear amorphous in the moment but reveals itself over time. Thuridur Jonsdottir’s flute concerto “Flutter” (2009) is similarly grounded in nature, sampling crickets and introducing its soloist, Mario Caroli, with an airy, primeval sound. Haukur Tomasson’s “In Seventh Heaven” (2011) makes ecstatically full use of the orchestra, which is later reduced to a whisper in Magnus Blondal Johannsson’s “Adagio” (1980), the album’s closing track and a farewell of lyrical mystery. JOSHUA BARONE
Les Talens Lyriques; Christophe Rousset, conductor; Lenneke Ruiten and Florie Valiquette, sopranos; Choeur de Chambre de Namur (Aparté)
Over the past few years, the distinguished, prolific conductor Christophe Rousset and his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques have delved into the underplayed operas of Antonio Salieri. They’ve focused on his French works of the 1780s, but in this taut, elegant recording they turn to “Armida,” the Italian-language hit that helped make Salieri’s career when it premiered in Vienna in 1771.
With its juicy central romance — a classic battle between love and duty, fidelity and betrayal — and magical milieu, the plot, drawn from Tasso’s 16th-century epic “Gerusalemme Liberata,” inspired many operas. Salieri’s version, with its darkly atmospheric overture and densely massed choruses, shows the influence of his teacher, Gluck, who would write his own adaptation, “Armide,” in 1777.
The two lovers — Armida, a sorceress of Damascus, and the enraptured Christian crusader Rinaldo — are here both sopranos, which gives a “Rosenkavalier” feel to their early idyll. As their spell breaks and their suspicion turns mutual, Lenneke Ruiten is particularly subtle in the title role, singing with an undercurrent of vulnerability that renders these two characters true partners in suffering. The opera overall is tense and passionate — well worth performing if a company has two excellent, well matched singing actresses on hand. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Works by Bach, Busoni, Chopin, Liszt and Stephen Hough; Stephen Hough, piano (Hyperion)
Death has long been a central subject of the arts, resulting in “the most exalted and inexhaustible expression,” as the pianist Stephen Hough writes in the liner notes to “Vida Breve,” his remarkable new solo album offering arresting accounts of works that touch on death.
The longest piece is Chopin’s “Funeral March” Sonata in B flat minor — a lucid, lyrical performance. There are two formidable Liszt works: the dark, mysterious “Funérailles,” suitably demonic here, and the harmonically radical “Bagatelle Sans Tonalité” (“Mephisto Waltz”). The program opens with a stunning account of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin, thought by some to be Bach’s memorial piece to his first wife and played in Busoni’s colossal arrangement for piano, a “cathedral of sound,” as Hough describes it.
Busoni’s “Carmen” Fantasy is here an eerie transfiguration of music from Bizet’s opera. The album’s title work is Hough’s own Piano Sonata No. 4, “Vida Breve,” referring to a life cut short, a sensation its composer conveys in an episodic, nine-minute work in one movement. The music shifts from lacy, harmonically wandering passages to stern proclamations with thick chords to stretches of industrious counterpoint, which build to a climax of teeming intensity before abruptly stopping. ANTHONY TOMMASINI
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