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Checking out new classical recordings with Baltimore roots

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Some cool new classical recordings (suitable holiday gifts) showcase Baltimore-based or -bred talent.

Classical recordings with strong Baltimore connections have turned up recently. Here are some that are well worth a listen. And, although conventional wisdom has it that no one buys CDs anymore, these could easily wrapped for the music lover on that holiday shopping list you are bound to get around to compiling before long.

Bernstein Symphony No. 3 ('Kaddish'), 'Missa Brevis,' 'The Lark': Claire Bloom, narrator; Kelley Nassief, soprano; Paulo Mestre, countertenor; Maryland State Boychoir; the Washington Chorus; Sao Paulo Symphony Choir; members of Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Marin Alsop, conductor. Naxos.

The BSO and music director Marin Alsop set out a few years ago to record all three of Leonard Bernstein's symphonies. The first item in this project for the Naxos label contains Symphony No. 3 ("Kaddish"), recorded live at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in 2012. Woven through the 1963 score is a long narration written by the composer in the form of an address to God, arguing, confessing, pleading, even berating in a search for answers to timeless questions about faith and purpose. It can all be a bit much, but the combination of a vivid narrator and an incisive conductor can unleash the work's considerably emotional power. That's what happens here.

Distinguished actress Claire Bloom delivers the text without pushing any of it; the result is quite an intimate experience. Soprano Kelley Nassief and the choral forces contribute greatly. But this is very much the BSO's recording, showing off the ensemble's technical and expressive qualities to keen effect.

If the "Kaddish" Symphony gets relatively few performances in concert halls, the two filler works on this disc get even fewer. Bloom is again the narrator in "The Lark," a concert version of music Bernstein composed for a play about Joan of Arc. That music, in turn, found use in his "Missa Brevis." Alsop leads both intriguing scores sensitively, drawing fine work from Brazilian musicians, including members of her other orchestra, the Sao Paolo Symphony, and its choir.

Philip Glass; Symphony No. 10, Concert Overture (2012): Bruckner Orchester Linz; Dennis Russell Davies, conductor. Orange Mountain Music.

Baltimore native Philip Glass, whose compelling "Appomattox" was unveiled this month in its revised form by Washington National Opera, had an earlier period of American history in mind when he wrote the "Concert Overture (2012)." The piece was co-commissioned by the Baltimore and Toronto symphonies to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812, and co-premiered on the same night in those ensemble's respective cities.

It's great to have a recording of the overture, which strikes me as a worthy substitute that orchestras, desiring a minimalist-style splash, should consider the next time they are tempted to drag out John Adams' "Short Ride on a Fast Machine" yet again. Glass, who describes this as "a celebration of a celebration," fashions a colorful, happily churning piece. Given the Baltimore aspect, it's too bad that Alsop and the BSO couldn't have recorded it. But Dennis Russell Davies is the reigning Glass conductor, and he gets a sturdy response from the Bruckner Orchester Linz, which also delivers a supple account of the composer's kinetic Symphony No. 10.

'Four Hands': Leon Fleisher, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, pianists. Works by Schubert, Brahms, Ravel, Bolcom. Sony Classical.

Any time Leon Fleisher makes a recording, discerning piano fans will snap it up. In this case, the eminent keyboard artist and longtime pedagogue at the Peabody Institute is joined by his wife, Katherine Jacobson Fleisher, a former student of his who brings considerable skills to the piano bench as well. The couple's recitals of four-hand music have been delectable to hear in concert halls, so this first recorded sampling of their tight partnership is most welcome.

Schubert's F minor Fantasy, a pinnacle of the composer's poetic thought, inspires keenly communicative playing from the Fleishers, who give something of a master class in terms of tempo, phrasing and color in the "Liebeslieder" Waltzes of Brahms. Ravel's swirling "La Valse," long a specialty of this duo, emerges with an effective sweep. And William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost Rag" makes a fun encore.

Collage: Amit Peled, cellist; Noreen Cassidy-Polera, pianist. Works by Rachmaninoff, Sulkhan Tsintsadze and David Popper. Centaur.

The popular cellist and Peabody Institute faculty member Amit Peled is captured here in typically vibrant form. Playing the cello previously owned by the revered Pablo Casals, Peled performs Rachmaninoff's rhapsodic G minor Sonata with a natural flow, considerable tenderness and unfailing style. Smoothly partnered by pianist Noreen Cassidy-Polera, the cellist also brings abundant technical and interpretive nuance to Tsintsadze's "Five Pieces on Folk Themes." The recital is capped by Popper's "Tarantelle," another piece ideally suited to Peled's lively personality.

Symphony Number One: Works by Mozart and Mark Fromm; Raoul Cho, flutist; Jordan Thomas, harpist; Jordan Randall Smith, conductor. (Available through symphno1.org.)

Among several ventures undertaken in recent years by current and former Peabody students, Symphony Number One, founded by conductor Jordan Randall Smith, stands out for its policy of programming classics alongside new works that it commissions. This program, recorded live at Baltimore War Memorial last spring, pairs Mozart's Concerto for Flute and Harp, as well as Faure's moody "Pavane," with the premiere of the half-hour-long Symphony No. 1 by the ensemble's then-composer in residence Mark Fromm.

That new symphony pulls you in right from the expansive and plaintive bassoon solo at the start. The work unfolds unhurriedly, creating a haunting effect from darkly lyrical themes before taking an ecstatic leap at the close. Smith draws playing of considerable expressive character from the ensemble here and on the rest of the disc, making it easy to overlook occasional raggedness. The hazy sound caused by the cavernous acoustics of the space can be tiresome, but the soloists in the Mozart concerto, crisply conducted by Smith, come through clearly and with elegance of phrase.

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