Five recent CD releases share attributes that capture finely rendered or bold musical moments that set the mood and will make for excellent summer listening.
Some offer new music, others introduce composers not often performed, and yet others offer a fresh take on ancient music.
Most can be sampled online, and for those who don't want to commit to an entire CD, individual tracks can be downloaded.
"American Harp," Yolanda Kondonassis Azica Records (Naxos)
Typically, the sound of the harp is associated with works by French composers Ravel and Debussy. But for the standout American harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, the harp is an instrument of great expression of American composers. That much is clear in this CD where she mines composers Elliott Carter, John Cage and Stephen Paulus, among others. Kondonassis' prodigious talents at the harp serve to bring out the depth of this music. Some of the works explore the harp's hypnotic power while others, like Carter's seven-minute "Bariolage," make the argument that the harp is capable of some very bold musical statements.
"Basically Bull," Alan Feinberg
Steinway and Sons
Very few classical composers have ever been described as a maniacal keyboard virtuoso and shameless adulterer in the same sentence. Such are the superlatives attached to 16th century composer John Bull, whose inventive works for keyboard dominate this excellent disc, performed by pianist Alan Feinberg. Usually Feinberg is heard championing the works of contemporary composers, but here he proves he has a deft hand at Renaissance music as he imparts an airy and expansive countenance to Bull's music. And because some of the works are getting their first outing on the modern keyboard, it is more than notable. There is something fetching about this Elizabethan music; it sounds contemporary, bratty and fresh.
"Gesualdo Victoria," Tenebrae Consort Archiv
Like John Bull, Gesualdo had controversies and public relation disasters. For Gesualdo, a nobleman, lute player and composer, it was a crime of passion: the double murder of his wife and her lover, whom he caught in the act. So if ever there were an artist whose life is argument for separating the personal from the artistic, it would be Gesualdo's. He's better known for his madrigals than for this work, which was written for performance on Holy Saturday. Gesualdo brings a colorful, secular vibe to the sacred music form. Also included are a set of Lamentations by Gesualdo contemporary Tomás Luis de Victoria. The 16-voice Tenebrae Consort, under the direction of Nigel Short, distinguishes itself with the way it brings out Gesualdo's great inventiveness.
"Voyages," Conrad Tao EMI
To understand why Forbes magazine named pianist and composer Conrad Tao one of the "30 Under 30" in the music industry, all you need to do is play this CD. You will find two sides of Tao: the savvy interpreter of Ravel and Rachmaninov, and a composer of moody and surreal works some of which are a nod to Ravel. Usually pianists are performers first and composers second with the latter often a distant second. But that is not the sense here as Tao reveals with "Vestiges" and "Iridescence," written for piano and iPad. The four-movement "Vestiges" evokes Ravel in the way the mood shifts from the dark, languid daydream of the second movement, "Upon Being," to the cascade of notes that enliven the third movement, "Viewing Two Porcelain Figures." As expected, Tao has a solid command of what he performs. With Ravel's "Gaspard de la Nuit," he sounds like a seasoned hand despite being just shy of his 19th birthday.
"Journeys," Emerson String Quartet Sony
The venerable Emerson String Quartet finds itself in new territory: Schoenberg, more particularly his "Verklärte Nacht." And it also returns to the distant past by recording Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence." As both works here were written for a lineup of two violins, two violas and two cellos, the quartet tapped violist Paul Neubauer and cellist Colin Carr. The result is a recording where nuance and lyricism bloom in the Tchaikovsky, and mood is served by a brooding urgency with the Schoenberg, which is the highlight of this CD. This recording provides another reason to qualify the Emerson as more than just pre-eminent interpreters of Brahms and Beethoven.
"Francesco di Milano: Il Divino," Paul O'Dette Harmonia Mundi
Francesco di Milano was one of the pre-eminent lute composers during the Renaissance. And so it is only fitting to have his music brought to the fore by current lute master Paul O'Dette. For a certain musical cohesion, O'Dette smartly groups Milano's works into mini-suites and chansons. O'Dette's lute playing explores the elegant and flowing counterpoint of this finely sculpted music, which owes its origin to the beauty of the motets and masses that were written at the time.
Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz.