Sharon Isbin, guitarist. Concertos by Christopher Rouse and Tan Dun. Gulbenkian Orchestra; Muhai Tang, conductor. (Teldec 8573-81830-2)
Sharon Isbin has an enviable track record of commissioning and championing new works for classical guitar; with this compact disc, recorded live in Lisbon, she documents another two worthy additions to that record.
Baltimore-born Christopher Rouse's "Concert de Gaudi for Guitar and Orchestra" from 1999 takes as its starting point the fanciful Spanish architecture of Antoni Gaudi, who died in 1926. From the first percussive measures, it's clear that flamenco is very much on Rouse's mind. He gives the guitar lots of flamenco riffs, propels much of the music with flamenco rhythms. Passionately lyrical melodies and a few big, juicy, traditional harmonic progressions also help to give the work an old-fashioned flavor. But the composer adds plenty of his own spice to the mix, creating a concerto with a distinctive personality.
Isbin performs the solo part with her usual brilliance; Muhai Tang is her supple partner on the podium, getting an assured, colorful response from the Gulbenkian Orchestra.
Flamenco also turns up in the 1996 Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra by Tan Dun, but that's only half the story. The other half is a vivid evocation of the p'i-p'a, an ancient lutelike instrument from the composer's native China. It's not often that you come across an Iberian-Chinese mix, but there's something quite fascinating, and remarkably cohesive, about the fusion. The guitar performs an almost improvisatory role in this four-movement work, offering a series of mostly animated reflections, sometimes on its own, sometimes with piquant commentary from the orchestra.
Again, Isbin's virtuosity shines, especially in the five-minute cadenza, which exploits the instrument's versatility and moves seamlessly between flamenco strumming and delicate high tremolos that conjure up the p'i-p'a.
The combination of Dun's moody multinationalism and Rouse's spirited sonic spires makes this a potent disc.
* * * *
Presenting Francesco Libetta. The pianist performs works by Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, et al. (VAI Audio 1196)
In 1998, the Miami International Piano Festival of Discovery was founded to pinpoint and present keyboard talent that deserved attention. Each year since, the festival has put the spotlight on unusually gifted pianists from several different countries, most of them known only to intensely dedicated piano fans. Italian Francesco Libetta was among the discoveries at last year's event, held at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach, where this live recording was made. Almost any track on the compact disc will make plain why he merits the attention.
Here is a fearless, imaginative pianist who has something to say and the means to say it. Among the knockouts here is a remarkably colorful account of Ravel's "La Valse," complete with magical doses of the idiomatic Viennese rhythmic lilt that so many other performances of this piece (including the better known orchestral version) miss completely. Such nuances add immeasurably to Libetta's technical virtuosity. It's the same with Liszt's powerhouse transcription of the Waltz from Gounod's "Faust." Again, the pianist doesn't settle for just pumping out all the notes; he gives the music a truly operatic sweep and lots of subtle touches along the way.
Sensitivity and tonal variety characterize his way with Debussy's "Estampes," while some of Godowsky's "Studies on Chopin's Etudes" are potently realized. Baroque transcriptions by Respighi could benefit from a little more character, but the encores -- including a deftly molded Chopin "Mazurka" and a bravura romp through a Saint-Saens "Etude" -- demonstrate admirable variety of expression.
Audience noises and over-eager applause are unwelcome elements in this recital, but the playing invariably makes such distractions minor.
* * * 1/2
For the Stars: Anne Sofie Von Otter Meets Elvis Costello. (Deutsche Grammophon 289 469 530-2)
There isn't much surprise left in the cross-over business (remember when Montserrat Caballe teamed up with Freddy Mercury?), but this disc still presents an unlikely pairing. Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter has one of the most exquisite voices of our time; rocker Elvis Costello doesn't. She is usually immersed in German lieder and opera; he isn't. Somehow, a mutual admiration developed between the two over the past few years, and the idea of a collaboration took root.
The result is a pleasant, laid-back -- mostly very laid-back -- collection of pop/rock songs, from the Beach Boys, Beatles and ABBA to Tom Waits and, of course, Costello. Von Otter holds back vocally, the way Kiri Te Kanawa did when she first started the cross-over bit; there's hardly a trace of classical training -- or a high note -- to be heard. And as happened with Te Kanawa, there's also hardly a spontaneous phrase. Everything is very pretty, very exact and, too often, very bland.
A medley of "Broken Bicycles" and "Junk," for example, seems sanitized when sung with such superb articulation and beauty of tone; it's hard for von Otter to make lines like "Broken-hearted jubilee/Parachutes, army boots" sound thoroughly natural. And the contrast of vocalism when Costello occasionally chimes in, especially on the innocuous title track, can be unsettling. (More unsettling are some of the abrupt fade-outs on several tracks.)
Here and there, the mezzo does fit the contour of a melody and the imagery of a lyric snugly. And her sincerity is never in doubt; neither is Costello's. For fans of either, the disc provides a conversation piece, at the very least.
* * 1/2