Creation: Branford Marsalis, saxophone; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. (Sony Classical SK 89251)
Classical-music fans who normally shy away from anything smacking of crossover-itis shouldn't hesitate to check out this thoroughly engaging collection of saxy, sometimes sexy French music.
Like his brother Wynton, saxophonist Branford Marsalis has the chops for both classical and jazz repertoire, with a warm, well-focused tone and fluent technique. Here, he gets to apply his talents to such jazz-inflected scores as Milhaud's "La Creation du monde" and Ibert's "Concertino" (he slips some fabulous riffs of his own into Ibert's third-movement cadenza).
He also effectively explores some delicate music that really pre-dates jazz - the "Pie Jesu" from Faure's "Requiem, which works surprisingly well transformed from a soprano aria to a sax-led instrumental, and an arrangement of one of the "Gymnopedies" by Satie. There's room, too, for evocative versions of Ravel's "Pavanne for a Dead Princess" and excerpts from Debussy's "Children's Corner."
To everything, Marsalis brings an idiomatic touch, a sensitivity to style. And he has a superb collaborator in the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, one of the most reliable classical ensembles on the scene.
There might be a quibble about the way that the profoundly beautiful "Pie Jesu" is jarringly followed by some of Milhaud's sauciest music, but it's really hard to complain. The disc exerts a strong pull, with its thoroughly winning performances of thoroughly winning repertoire.
* * * *
Sonatas for Two Guitars: Julian Gray and Ronald Pearl. (Dorian Recordings DOR-93226)
You've heard the old line about how Antonio Vivaldi didn't write 500 concertos, but one concerto 500 times. Well, it's tempting to say that Domenico Scarlatti just wrote one keyboard sonata 555 times. Of course, in either case, the charge is disproved quickly by careful listening.
Scarlatti's achievement may be even greater than Vivaldi's, given the tonal limitations of a single instrument (harpsichord); each of his sonatas has distinctive features, even if the overall structural outline may be the same in each. The composer's gift for melody and harmonic movement never seemed to fail him; the ear is invariably pulled into these single-movement gems. This richness of content has attracted the attention not just of harpsichord players, but of pianists and guitarists, who have frequently appropriated these pieces.
This new release by the Baltimore-based classical guitar duo of Julian Gray and Ronald Pearl easily explains the lure of Scarlatti's sonatas. The pieces are beautifully suited to the sound-world of two guitars, at least when played so imaginatively as they are here.
Gray and Pearl display a disarming level of virtuosity in a colorful collection of 14 sonatas, most calling for fast tempos, which the guitarists dive into fearlessly. Throughout the recital, the duo's phrasing is alive with character, a wide range of dynamic levels, and admirable clarity of line.
Some of the Scarlatti sonatas from this disc, along with works by Chopin, Debussy and others, will be performed in a concert at 8 p.m. tomorrow at Peabody Institute's Friedberg Hall, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place. For more information, see the Best Bet on Page 18.
* * * *
Complete Opera Overtures: Bern Symphony Orchestra; Vincent La Selva, conductor. (Newport Classic 85649)
Here's another commemoration of the 2001 centennial of Verdi's death, this one devoted to the orchestral side of his operas. Billed as the first CD to offer all of Verdi's overtures, the recording includes such rarities as "Oberto" and "Un Giorno di Regno," his first two ventures into the theater. "Alzira," "Giovanna d'Arco" and "La Battaglia di Legnano," operas that have rarely seen the light of a stage since the mid-1800s, are also represented.
Another off-beat item is the vivid overture that Verdi wrote for the first Italian production of "Aida," but decided to scrap before it was ever played in public.
Only the overture to "La Forza del Destino" is still commonly heard outside of its regular context; no question, it is a masterpiece of form and content. But there's no good reason why the others have not enjoyed an active concert life as well - as so many of Rossini's have. Verdi's overtures are invariably tuneful, dramatic and colorfully orchestrated, assets neatly reaffirmed in this recording.
The Bern Symphony lacks a little in terms of virtuosity and tone (the violins sound rather anemic at times). And veteran Verdian Vincent La Selva lacks a little in the way of individualistic phrasing (dig up an account of the "Forza" overture led by Dimitri Mitropoulos to hear what's missing). But each work is given a convincing, spirited performance, and it's certainly handy to have all of these pieces on one album.
* * *