CD reviews: Diving into classical
August 6, 2009
The latest round of CD reviews, in which I dip into dangerous and personally uncharted waters – critiquing classical music. Harvey Steiman, where are you when I need you?
As a concept, this album by guitarist Sharon Isbin, a member of the Aspen Music School faculty, works nicely. The idea is to trace music from the 16th century British Isles to 21st century America, and it requires no strain to hear how the music changes over time and geography. Isbin starts with a group of transcribed Renaissance lute pieces, including the enduring “Greensleeves,” and they evoke something old and English. The style loosens up considerably with the folk song “The Drunken Sailor,” preparing the way for “Wayfaring Stranger,” which features vocals by Joan Baez. That in turn is a perfect set-up for John Duarte’s “Joan Baez Suite,” versions of folk songs – “The House of the Rising Son,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” – for solo guitar.The album closes with fiddler Mark O’Connor joining Isbin on “Strings & Threads Suite,” an expanded version of a piece O’Connor originally composed for solo violin. The set of 13 brief pieces brings things into the current New Acoustic age, where Irish jigs and Appalachian folk join blues, ballads, waltzes and rags. Isbin is stellar throughout, showing a versatility that puts her on the same ground as the pickers, like Bla Fleck, who have made bigger names outside the classical realm. Magnificent stuff.To note: Sharon Isbin and Mark O’Connor appear in an Aspen Music Festival recital Saturday, Aug. 15 at Harris Hall.
Mark O’Connor and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg get together with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop to play O’Connor’s Double Violin Concerto. (The recording was made in Denver in 2003, when Alsop was director of the orchestra; the CD was released in 2008.) O’Connor and Salerno-Sonnenberg take turns acting as violinists and fiddlers – the three movements are titled “Swing,” “Midnight on the Dance Room Floor” and “Dixieland” – with the lines often blurred. And that can make for an unfocused piece of music, marked as much by excellent playing and memorable passages as abrupt turns and self-conscious crossing-over.Somewhat more cohesive is O’Connor’s “Johnny Appleseed Suite,” which features pianist John Jarvis, guitarist Bryan Sutton and the Colorado Symphony.The CD ends on a high note, with O’Connor and the orchestra playing a tender “Amazing Grace.”
In San Francisco’s New Century Chamber Orchestra, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg takes on two novel roles, as music director and orchestra member, specifically, as concertmaster. She’s an excellent fit on “Impressions: Suite for Chamber Orchestra,” by Brazilian composer Clarice Assad. The five-movement piece is dynamic, fresh and sharply played. Salerno-Sonnenberg moves into her more familiar role of soloist in Piazzolla’s “Four Seasons of Buenos Aires,” and Bartk’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” which is rearranged to feature solo cello and viola as well. The CD ends with a sweet arrangement of Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
On “Floodplain,” the Kronos Quartet gathers music written in the planet’s lowlands, mostly in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and India. The concept is dubious: Are there really significant cultural connections between the Egyptian Nile and the Serbian Danube? But maybe the more significant thing is that the Kronos finds inspiration in the idea, and “Floodplain” crackles with energy. The quartet brings its usual au courant thinking to the project, and guests like Chinese musician Wu Man on electric sitar, Palestine’s Ramallah Underground, and the Azerbaijan ensemble Alim Qasimov on the 12-minute “Getme, Getme (Don’t Leave, Don’t Leave)” make for a fascinating piece of world travel. Fans of minimalism won’t want to miss the 21-minute closer, “… hold me, neighbor, in this storm …,” by Serbia’s Aleksandra Vrebalov.Also out: “Doctor Atomic Symphony,” an all-instrumental work by John Adams, based on his opera about the creation of the world’s first atom bomb, and performed by the St. Louis Symphony and conductor David Robertson (Nonesuch); and the two-disc set “Mozart: The Complete Violin Concertos,” by violinist Gidon Kremer and his ensemble, Kremerata Baltica, recorded live at the 2006 Salzburg Festival.email@example.com