Summer may be the best season for exploring new music. And this year has seen a strong crop of new and interesting recordings that are tailor-made for expanding musical horizons.
Below are seven noteworthy releases to explore. Besides sharing musical excellence, these CDs are performed by musicians or ensembles at the cutting edge of their musical discipline. After listening to them, it's safe to say they'll put a new shine on the word "classical."
with the Vogler Quartet
Berlin Nights, Paris Days
Steinway & Sons
This pairing of chanteuse Ute Lemper and the Vogler Quartet is sensuously sonorous. The music on this excellent CD is a trip from the Weimar years to the swagger of Nuevo Tango. Lemper's singing offers a brilliant combination of emotion and clarity, never overstressing the longing, sadness or buoyancy in the music. The showpiece here is "Surabaya Johnny" from Brecht's "Happy End" where Lemper makes this well-known chanson sound totally new. Here she sells it with virility, humor and irony, and the Vogler quartet is a top-notch accompaniment.
The music of Argentine Àstor Piazzolla is well represented, and it is there that the quartet shines. On "Yo Soy Maria" from the Piazzolla tango opera "Maria de Buenos Aires," Lemper and the Vogler give an almost punkish sheen to this wildly underrated music. A must-have.
The Debussy Edition
Driving across country? Flying to the far climes of Hong Kong or Buenos Aires this summer? Are you a fan of Debussy? If yes, this 18-CD box set of Debussy's ouevre will get you there in languid and sultry Gallic fashion. What can be better than a box set offering the likes of the Cleveland Orchestra, under the baton of Pierre Boulez, performing Debussy's "La Mer" and "Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune"? Or Claudio Abbado conducting "Pelleas et Melisande" with the Weiner Philharmoniker?
Included is pianist Mitsuko Uchida's definitive take on Debussy's 12 Etudes.
To stand out these days, a string quartet has to write and perform music offering a sense of drama. The music must be as cinematic as it is aural. It is in this realm that the New York-based Ethel is thriving. On "Heavy" you get the noir-like musical highway string-trip that is "Four Thoughts on Marvin Gaye." This wide-screen sonic work comes across as fraught one moment, jazzy the next. At times, the bowed notes and the plucked strings falls on the ear like so much rain. A highlight on this release is Kenji Bunch's "String Circle No. 1" and the hopeful, tactile musical poetry of "Rounds."
A new generation of classical guitarist is coming onto the music scene and many no longer hew to the dogma of the Segovia era. One of those is the supremely talented Benjamin Beirs. On this release, he proves that the guitar offers vastly more color and depth than many credit it with, and he proves it by undertaking repertoire like Steve Reich's minimalist gem "Electronic Counterpoint." In Beirs' hand, Reich's repeating rhythms and evolving musical ideas bloom with primal colors. Noteworthy is Beirs' brilliant take on Marek Pasieczny's five-movement "American Suite." It's the brave new world of the classical guitar.
Anderson & Roe
When Words Fade
Steinway & Sons
When you think of music for two pianos do you think of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" or Michael Jackson's "Bille Jean"? Not likely. But this is exactly what the fresh-faced couple Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Roe have done on their latest CD. These Juilliard piano grads are bent on recasting classical music as more than Brahms and Beethoven. The arrangements here run from the stellar to the ho-hum, but it is more stellar than not. Worth getting for their arrangement of "Paranoid Android," which splays Radiohead's music over a large canvas and one that captures all the mystery and power of the music.
with Christina Pluhar
Los Pájaros Perdidos
This is what was wrought when the Spanish and Portuguese brought baroque instruments to South America. The rise of instruments like the charango, cuatro, bandolin and requinto was the result. These, in turn, produced a musical fusion of the European and the indigenous and that fusion is the crux of this excellent CD. Here, the top-notch baroque French ensemble L'Arpeggiata explores Veneuzuelan, Argentine, Paraguayan and Spanish music from the 17th century and onward the heart of South America's "classical music." It's stunningly performed music of deep emotion and depth. Highlights include countertenor Philippe Jaroussky shining on Ástor Piazzolla's "Lost Birds" and the melancholic "Alfonsina y el Mar," sung by Lucilla Galeazzi.
Hilary Hahn and Hauschka
A hypnotic and mind- expanding effort from acclaimed violinist Hahn. Here she performs new music with pianist Hauschka (a.k.a. Volker Bertelmann), whose musical niche is the prepared piano. The coming together of these two instrumentalists results in a tantalizing musical landscape with the violin affecting an ethereal presence ranging from the jagged to the poetic. The prepared piano here offers a dirty, metallic percussive sound as seen on the best track on the CD, the frenetic "Bounce Bounce." The music here rises and ripples like a silvery mirage on a hot, lonely highway.