5 Classical Albums to Hear Right Now
Brahms: Symphony No. 4
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; Manfred Honeck, conductor (Reference Recordings)
Last month, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra announced that its music director, Manfred Honeck, would extend his contract through the 2027-28 season. Good for them. As I wrote two years ago, these forces have been setting new standards in the standards, their records combining astonishing playing with conducting that is full of ideas — sometimes, perhaps, a little too full.
Right on cue, their new album offers James MacMillan’s gnarly-to-seraphic Larghetto for Orchestra, atmospherically adapted from his choral “Miserere” for its premiere in Pittsburgh in 2017. It serves as a sanguine epilogue to a Brahms Fourth that is frankly frightening in its details, from the shudders of its opening bars to the disembodied end of Lorna McGhee’s flute solo in the final movement.
There are moments when there is little to do but gawp at the excellence and the uses to which it is put — the caustic edge in the horns, or the myriad varieties of vibrato that Honeck draws from the strings. But if this Brahms is rightly unsettling, it’s unsettled, too; so much is going on that it can be hard to hear the tragic, destructive force that marks this symphony coming through.
Like it or not — and after a dozen hearings I’m still not sure — it’s another demonstration of the great merit of Honeck and the Pittsburghers: They show you the value of listening again, and again, to that which you thought you knew. DAVID ALLEN
Chopin: Études and Scherzos
Beatrice Rana, piano (Warner Classics)
True to the heritage of the piano étude, Chopin wrote his 24 (in two books of 12) as formidable study pieces to develop specific aspects of technique. Most pianists able to play these daunting works strive to convey the intricacies and strokes of imagination in the music. Then there is Beatrice Rana in her remarkable new recording of the second book, along with the four scherzos. While surmounting their challenges easily, she convinces you that these are among the most poetic and musical pieces Chopin produced.
The magic starts with the Étude in A flat. The rippling arpeggios that run throughout unfold with wondrous delicacy and milky colorings, as a gentle melody flows by. The Étude in F is so playful and crisp you might not realize how hard it is to execute the squiggly figures that leap high and low in both hands. In études that provide rigorous workouts in double thirds, octaves and more, Rana brings out ebullience, mystery and fearsome intensity.
Her scintillating accounts of the scherzos deftly balance bursts of breathless passagework and plaintive lyricism. The Scherzo in E is especially fine — all dancing chords, fleet runs and coy handling of the music’s sudden stop and starts. ANTHONY TOMMASINI
Emily D’Angelo, mezzo-soprano (Deutsche Grammophon)
A young generation of opera singers is adept at shuttling between ancient and modern styles: Witness Anthony Roth Costanzo’s “Glass Handel” or Kate Lindsey, assured in both Monteverdi and Kurt Weill. But is still unusual for an artist like the rising mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, 27, whose stage work is almost entirely in the standard repertory, to veer as far from Mozart and Rossini as she does on “Enargeia,” her debut solo recording.
A brooding album, heavy on drones, mellow chants and sorrowful outpourings, “Enargeia” has its chronological foundation in the solemn music of Hildegard von Bingen, who provides a model for (much) more recent works by Missy Mazzoli, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Hildur Gudnadottir, an Academy Award winner for her “Joker” score. This is a branch of contemporary classical music that blurs into artsy pop, as in “The Lotus Eaters,” a lushly wailing song from Snider’s 2009 cycle “Penelope.”
Track titles like “You Are the Dust” and “Dead Friend” give a sense of the album’s dusky mood, which fits D’Angelo’s rich, eloquent voice, intense and sumptuous yet airy. Joined by an array of collaborators, she largely avoids portentousness in material that tends sodden and sulky. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Charlotte Greve: ‘Sediments We Move’
Wood River; Cantus Domus (New Amsterdam)
The composer and saxophonist Charlotte Greve’s past projects have included contemporary jazz (in the Lisbeth Quartett) and proggy singer-songwriter work (with her group Wood River). Her latest recording, the seven-part suite “Sediments We Move,” shows traces of both paths. It features jazz artists, as well as strong beat work and electronics familiar from pop. There’s also a new element in the mix: choral writing.
Given its hybrid genre, the album has found an ideal home on New Amsterdam, a wide-ranging contemporary classical imprint. Greve’s writing suggests kinship with two of the label’s co-founders. Her motifs for electric guitar and Minimalist synthesizers bring to mind the music of William Brittelle; the writing for voices — both complex and soothing — is reminiscent of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s “Mass for the Endangered.”
But Greve is definitely her own artist, and the blend of approaches here manages to surprise while also feeling carefully thought through. Listen for the way a bright choral refrain — declaimed over slapping percussion in the second movement — reappears in a new guise midway through the following track as gloomier material for the guitarist. That’s just one moment of many in which Greve displays a tight focus on arrangement and composition, with all the aesthetics at her disposal. SETH COLTER WALLS
Huang Ruo: ‘A Dust in Time’
Del Sol Quartet (Bright Shiny Things)
We should always be wary of music with claims of therapeutic power — often works in a post-Minimalist, post-Brian Eno vein that populate playlists on streaming platforms, promising sleep or relaxation. So I was skeptical when I opened “A Dust in Time,” the Del Sol Quartet’s premiere recording of Huang Ruo’s hourlong passacaglia of the same name, and found that an album that had been billed as a healing response to the pandemic came with a coloring book.
The piece has a palindromic structure inspired by Tibetan sand mandalas — slowly building from nothing to a luminous center, then slowly returning to nothing again — and the book, designed by Felicia Lee, welcomes listeners to color in their own mandalas as they listen. If coloring helps you pay attention, by all means. This is music you should sit with, free of distraction, to feel the effect of focus itself.
Delivered with sensitivity and patience by the Del Sol players, Ruo’s score begins with virtually single-note phrases from the cello and viola, excavations of beauty from the elemental, like the slow movements of late Beethoven quartets. Almost imperceptibly, the music builds in force and complexity toward a radiant and churning central section before returning to the quiet strands of the opening. An hour could have passed, or more, or less. It doesn’t matter: Losing yourself in this space outside time is part of the point. JOSHUA BARONE