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Ricky Ian GordonBright Eyed Joy: The Songs...

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ricky Ian Gordon

Bright Eyed Joy: The Songs of Ricky Ian Gordon. Various artists. (Nonesuch 79626)

One of the toughest sells in classical music these days is the vocal recital. Time was when audiences had a much bigger appetite for songs by Schubert or Schumann, Debussy or Poulenc - songs that combined poetry and music in a way that made both a higher form of art. Perhaps tastes will change and, just as opera suddenly became very hot again, song recitals will be all the range.

Chances are, if that ever happens it will be because classically trained singers expand their horizons and open up their programs to a wider range of art song. And they won't find a better place to start than with the work of Ricky Ian Gordon. Several of today's finest sopranos, among them Renee Fleming and Harolyn Blackwell, have already made this discovery. Others, including Dawn Upshaw and Audra McDonald, can be heard on this highly engaging collection of Gordon songs, joined by five other vocalists (classical and pop) and first-rate instrumentalists.

Gordon's style is a disarming fusion of jazz, cabaret and Broadway-pop idioms with the language of 20th-century tonal classical composers. Resonances of Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and others can be detected, but without ever detracting from Gordon's decidedly original voice. His melodic lines take flight easily, naturally, ever responsive to poems by the likes of Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, James Agee and Dorothy Parker.

Highlights here include the haunting, ballad-style "Souvenir" (verses by Millay), sung simply and affectingly by Adam Guettel; a Sondheim-esque rouser called "Run Away" with a text by the composer, given a bright-toned performance by Theresa McCarthy; the spiky, bouncy "New Moon" (Hughes), set for vocal quartet; a wistful treatment of Parker's "The Red Dress," sung by Dawn Upshaw with her typical beauty and telling nuance; a trio of multi-layered poems by Hughes about the South, delivered in richly expressive phrases by Audra McDonald. ****

Astor Piazzolla

Tracing Astor: Gidon Kremer Plays Astor Piazzolla (Nonesuch 79601); Trio Fundacion Astor Piazzolla: Concierto de Nacar and other works (Times Square Records TSQD 014)

Few dance forms exert the sensual pull of the tango. And like many other dances, it has enjoyed an extended life in classical music, from the bittersweet piano "Tango" from around 1890 by Isaac Albeniz to the complex tango-based works of the late Astor Piazzolla. The latter composer has achieved almost icon status for the skill and imagination of his creations, which elevate the tango to concert level the way Johann Strauss elevated the waltz.

These two releases explore Piazzolla's legacy in vivid fashion. Gidon Kremer, one of the most adventuresome violin virtuosos of the day, has put together an attractive package in "Tracing Astor," containing arrangements of various Piazzolla pieces and a couple of compositions by others (including Leonid Desyatnikov's spicy title track) that pay homage to the tango master. Kremer's own arrangements for solo violin of six Piazzolla etudes are particularly persuasive, with equal amounts of bravura and sensitivity.

Kremer is joined by violist Ula Ulijona in a witty arrangement of "La Calle 92"; the two team up with cellist Marta Sudraba for a particularly beautiful performance of the moody "Milonga sin Palabras." The Kremerata Baltica string orchestra provides smooth support in Giovanni Sollima's rapturous "Violoncelles, Vibrez!" for two cellos and orchestra and the brief, melancholy "All in the Past" for violin and orchestra by Georgs Pelecis.

Trio Fundacion - Marcelo Jaime Nisinman, bandoneon; Timora Rosler, cello; Sebastian Forster, piano - offer another powerful sampling of the Piazzolla legacy, delivered with authority and flair. The composer's use of counterpoint - the musical language of Bach - is heard to vibrant effect in "Fuga y Misterio" and "Las Cuatro Estaciones Portenas"; the beguiling charms of "Concierto de Nacar," arranged here for trio and string orchestra, come through strongly; "Adios Nanino" captures the composer's rich, distinctive vein of lyricism, passion and rhythmic power. ****

Leonard Bernstein

Bernstein: 'West Side Story' Suite and other works. Joshua Bell, violinist; Philharmonia Orchestra; David Zinman, conductor. (Sony Classical SK 89358)

Violinists who have long savored Jascha Heifetz's brilliant arrangements of Gershwin songs are likely to be just as drawn to the finely crafted arrangements for violin and orchestra of Bernstein's Broadway music championed on this new release by Joshua Bell.

The perpetually youthful fiddler makes a strong case for William David Brohn's "West Side Story" Suite, which condenses Bernstein's greatest Broadway score into 19 colorful, emotional minutes. If the violin writing sometimes goes over the top, the result is invariably satisfying. Two cadenzas, one conceived by Bell, put an extra dash of bravura into the imaginative suite.

Brohn's arrangements of "Lonely Town" and "New York, New York" from "On the Town" are also effective, but they are eclipsed by one of "Make Our Garden Grow" from "Candide" by exceptional composer John Corigliano, who has fashioned a compelling, multi-colored statement out of one of Bernstein's most indelible melodies.

Complementing the Broadway side of Bernstein is his brilliant and arresting concert work "Serenade After Plato's 'Symposium.' " It receives a polished, penetrating performance by Bell, with conductor David Zinman and the Philharmonia Orchestra providing sympathetic partnering, as they do throughout the disc. ****

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