The supposedly long-dead classical recording industry keeps churning out products every month, including some with strong Baltimore connections. Here's a roundup of recent releases that prove to be well worth a spin on the compact disc player, or your favorite downloading device:
CORIGLIANO: Symphony No. 1; COPLAND: "Appalachian Spring" Suite; TORKE: "Bright Blue Music. National Orchestra Institute Philharmonic; David Alan Miller, conductor. Naxos.
John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1, his searing response to the loss of many friends to AIDS in the 1980s, occupies a prominent place in 20th-century American music. The emotions — rage, above all, but also tenderness — and the ingenuous structure of the score make for a deeply involving experience.
Already well served on disc, the symphony gets another persuasive performance here from an ensemble of advanced students at the National Orchestra Institute, held at the University of Maryland, College Park. They also respond strongly to David Allan Miller's sensitive conducting in Michael Torke's buoyant "Bright Blue Music" and Aaron Copland's evergreen "Appalachian Spring."
MENDELSSOHN: Violin and Piano Sonatas. Madeline Adkins, violinist; Luis Magalhaes, pianist. Two Pianists Records.
Madeline Adkins, who starts as concertmaster of the Utah Symphony this season, was long valued as Baltimore Symphony Orchestra associate concertmaster for her sure technique and vibrant personality. Those gifts abound on this Mendelssohn collection.
Partnered with equal ease and nuance by pianist Luis Magalhaes, Adkins captures the lyrical sweep of Mendelssohn's F major Sonata from 1838. The youthful F major Sonata from 1820 inspires playing of great clarity and color, especially in the whirlwind finale. Adkins finds the drama in the F minor Sonata, Op. 4, as well as the poetic possibilities in the single, promising fragment from an unfinished D minor Sonata.
Prokofiev's Symphony No. 6 emerged in the wake of World War II, but feels far from celebratory. For every upbeat passage, something sinister seems to simmer beneath the notes of this riveting work.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, here leading her other ensemble, Brazil's well-regarded Sao Paulo Symphony Orchestra, misses some opportunities to unleash the bold force of the Sixth. But her keen rhythmic sense assures a taut performance that finds the orchestra in crackling form. The disc also offers a vibrantly expressive account of the delectable Waltz Suite.
At the start of Symphony No. 2 by Kevin Puts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Peabody Conservatory faculty member, a beguiling, anthem-like theme gently rises. Flurries in the woodwinds suggest birds darting across a pristine blue sky — a sky like the one over Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001. This symphony is Puts' response to the horror of that day.
Although the music becomes darker, more angular and percussive, Puts never pushes the imagery too far and closes the symphony with music that is all about healing, dignity and tomorrow. Alsop brings out those qualities in an impressive performance with the Peabody Symphony Orchestra. The all-Puts disc also offers a deft account of the exuberant "River's Rush." In the Flute Concerto, with its Mozart-infused Andante and hand-clap-punctuated finale, Adam Walker is a supple, pearly-toned soloist.
RACHMANINOFF: Variations on Themes of Chopin and Corelli. Marianna Prjevalskaya, pianist. Fanfare Cincinnati.
Marianna Prjevalskaya, who earned her doctorate at the Peabody Conservatory, gave a probing Baltimore recital last year for Music in the Great Hall that included Rachmaninoff's brilliant Variations on a Theme of Corelli. She revisits that work on this fine recording, paired with the composer's likewise daunting Variations on a Theme of Chopin.
Prjevalskaya may not dig as deeply into these pieces as, say, Vladimir Ashkenazy did in his prime. But she tackles both with disarming technical assurance, all the while revealing a keen ear for subtleties of tempo and dynamics. Each work becomes a poetic novel, the "chapters" filled with fascinating detail and leading up to a richly satisfying summation.
SCHUMANN: Cello Concerto. Amit Peled, cellist; Washington Chamber Orchestra, Jun Kim, conductor. Centaur.
At 25 minutes, this recording of Schumann's Cello Concerto is puny for a CD; it's aimed more at downloaders. Either way, the performance is well worth a listen.
Cellist and Peabody Conservatory faculty member Amit Peled has always been a compelling artist, but since he received the 1733 Goffriller cello previously owned by Pablo Casals, his music-making seems doubly expressive. He gives a songful, unhurried account of the Schumann score, as warm in tone as in phrasing, and he enjoys stylish support from the Washington Chamber Orchestra, led by Jun Kim.
DUOS FOR OBOE AND PIANO: Katherine Needleman, oboist; Jennifer Lim, pianist. Schumann, Poulenc and others. Genuin Classics.
This CD prompted an international social media hue and cry after an online reviewer took a dim view of the playing by Baltimore Symphony Orchestra principal oboist Katherine Needleman. What I hear on the recording is an excellent selection of repertoire and sensitive music-making by Needleman and pianist Jennifer Lim.
The artists bring telling rubato and finely shaded phrasing to Schumann's Op. 94. They capture the mercurial spirits of David Ludwig's eventful "Pleiades: Seven Microludes for Oboe and Piano" (commissioned by Needleman), and dig vividly into the tense Suite by Pavel Haas. Francis Poulenc's bittersweet Sonata finds both players in especially eloquent form.
LIGHT AND DARK AND IN BETWEEN: A Progressive Recital Featuring Four Organs in Baltimore; Diane Luchese, organist. Raven.
Diane Luchese, the Towson University professor who gave a 15-hour marathon performance of John Cage's "Organ2/ASLSPA" on campus in 2009, travels through 50 years of organ repertoire using organs installed in four Baltimore churches between 1931 and 2007. All that historical scope, combined with solid musicianship, results in an unusual, substantial recording.
Highlights include Arvo Part's "Annum per annum," with its infectious spiritual uplift, and Gyorgy Ligeti's intense and technically daunting "Harmonies." Luchese makes compelling cases for the diverse works, compelling use of the diverse instruments. A neat bonus: 30 seconds of bell ringing at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, used as a prelude.
MENG: Meng Su, guitarist. Works of Bach, Walton and others. Tonar Music.
This disc makes a sterling calling card for Meng Su, the Chinese-born classical guitarist who came to Baltimore to study with the eminent Manuel Barrueco at the Peabody Conservatory. Su's command of the instrument is everywhere apparent, whether charging into the bravura moments of a sonata by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco or exploring the subtleties of William Walton's Five Bagatelles.
Su's flair for communicative phrasing also commands attention. She plays a Bach Suite with wonderful nuance, and brings a particularly sensitive touch to a darkly beautiful theme from John Williams' "Munich" film score.
WIND CONCERTI: Temple University Wind Symphony; Emily Threinen, conductor. Works by Joel Puckett, Jennifer Higdon and others. BCM+D Records.
This two-disc set has one Baltimore connection — Peabody faculty member Joel Puckett, a composer whose music can achieve exceptional poetic power. "The Shadow of Sirius: Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra," from 2010, is a prime example.
This introspective work, which takes its inspiration from melancholy poems by W.S. Merwin, explores the flute's emotional range and prismatic colors from the orchestra. But the exquisitely layered concerto is as much about soul as it is sound. The Philadelphia Orchestra's David Cramer plays superbly, as does the Temple University ensemble, led by Emily Threinen.