Best Music Of The Year So Far: Classical

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist

The first official days of summer are heating up. And that, of course, signals an annual ritual: It's time to turn up the air-conditioning, pop a cold brew and consider the great classical CDs released in the past six months. From the soaring voice of Sondra Radvanovsky to the turbulent sounds of the Berlin Philharmonic in full cry to hypnotic chants from Kiev, hear a few of the many terrific new recordings, made mostly on small, independent labels.

Best Music Of The Year So Far: Classical

Silvestrov cover art

Silvestrov: "The Creed" (Kiev Chamber Choir)

  • Artist: Kiev Chamber Choir
  • Album: Valentin Silvestrov: Sacred Works

The Ukranian composer Valentin Silvestrov (b. 1937), like his Estonian contemporary Arvo Part, was once a competent avant-gardist, but he had a sudden change of heart: In the 1970s, he turned more lyrical and spiritual. In the music on this record -- composed largely in 2005 and '06 -- Silvestrov creates amazing effects. Glowing halos of sound hover over the music, and the voices of the excellent Kiev Chamber Choir (with its resonant low end) shimmer like moonlight on black water. Forget that these are liturgical songs (no texts included) and bask in the trembling aura.

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Song
The Creed
Album
Valentin Silvestrov: Sacred Works
Artist
Kiev Chamber Choir
Label
ECM Records

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Brooklyn Rider Cover art

John Cage: In A Landscape

  • Artist: Brooklyn Rider
  • Album: Dominant Curve

This isn't your grandfather's string quartet. Brooklyn Rider plays some of the standard string-quartet repertoire, but more often than not it performs original compositions or new works, collaborating with a wide array of guest musicians. This CD uses Claude Debussy as a jumping-off point to many interesting places. His string quartet resides at the center of the recording, and around it circles music by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen, a piece for Japanese flute, another by an Uzbek composer and this marvelous arrangement of John Cage's "In a Landscape." It expands on the original, with layers of electronics and strings that evoke the Chinese sheng (mouth organ) and a hint of glass harmonica. Spacious, rocking and calming.

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Song
In a Landscape, for piano or harp
Album
Dominant Curve
Artist
Brooklyn Rider
Label
In a Circle
Released
2010

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Cover for Schubert Live, Vol. 2

Schubert: Piano Sonata in G major D. 894 ("molto moderato")

  • Artist: Imogen Cooper
  • Album: Schubert Live, Vol. 2

Imogen Cooper is a natural Schubert player. She came to the composer through a love for his songs (accompanying a number of great Schubert singers), and it shows in how she makes the piano sing in these bittersweet sonatas and short pieces, largely from late in the composer's career. "I remain convinced," Cooper says, "that Schubert's love for the voice -- the instrument inside the body -- and for poetry [has] affected all of his great music, not the least the big piano works from 1823-28." Cooper never overplays the music, making what could be thought of as routine passages in Schubert's expansive G major sonata sound fresh.

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Song
Piano Sonata No. 18 in G major ("Fantasy"), D. 894 (Op. 78) [1. Molto moderato e cantabile]
Album
Schubert Live, Vol. 2
Artist
Imogen Cooper
Label
Avie
Released
2009

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Cover for Thomas Adès: Tevot; Violin Concerto

Thomas Ades: Tevot (excerpt by the Berlin Philharmonic)

  • Artist: Berlin Philharmonic
  • Album: Thomas Adès: Tevot; Violin Concerto

Thomas Ades is arguably the finest composer under 40 today. Some would argue that he's the most impressive composer today, period. And it's hard not to agree when you hear Tevot, which Ades likens to a wild ride in outer space. Scored for extra-large orchestra, the music creates a vast sound world of its own. Beginning with the highest, thinnest strands of tone in the violins, the piece veers off to violent crashes in percussion, hulking, twisted dances, and sudden ejections into near silence. Eventually, a wistful melody emerges, grows, explodes and brings us back to earth. The Berlin Philharmonic whispers and roars.

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Song
Tevot, For Orchestra (excerpt)
Album
Thomas Adès: Tevot; Violin Concerto
Artist
Thomas Adès
Label
EMI Classics
Released
2010

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Cover for Verdi Arias

Verdi: "D'amor sull'ali rosee" from Il Trovatore

  • Artist: Constantine Orbelian
  • Album: Verdi Arias

Few musical events are as exciting for me as hearing a terrific new singer for the very first time live. I heard Sondra Radvanovsky sing Verdi and Puccini arias in February, and was blown away. Now she has her first solo recital disc. If she keeps on singing at this level, we'll have a major new star on our hands. She opens her mouth and huge streams of sound soar out like giant bolts of multicolored cloth -- shimmering silver, azure blue. It's a huge voice, yet she knows how to harness all that power. Note the passage beginning two minutes into this awesome aria from Verdi's Il Trovatore.

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Song
Il Trovatore, opera [D'amor sull'ali rosee]
Album
Verdi Arias
Artist
Sondra Radvanovsky
Label
Delos
Released
2010

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Cover for Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7

Weinberg: Symphony No. 7 (Allegro - Adagio sostenuto)

  • Artist: Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
  • Album: Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7

You have to be kind of a classical nerd to know about Weinberg, but he's worth seeking out. Although overshadowed by his contemporaries -- the biggest names in Soviet music, like Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian -- Weinberg wrote some original and arresting music. In the fascinating Symphony No. 7 for strings and harpsichord, Weinberg tips his hat to the old baroque concerto grosso, while indulging his own introspective style. This finale is the heart and soul of the symphony, with odd contributions from the harpsichord, outbursts of demonic urgency and a few relaxed grooves.

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Song
Symphony for string orchestra & harpsichord No. 7 in C major, Op. 81 [5. Allegro - Adagio sostenuto]
Album
Weinberg: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 7
Artist
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra
Label
Chandos
Released
2010

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