5 Classical Music Albums You Can Listen to Right Now

Igor Levit’s latest amazement, an example of David Lang’s raucous side and French love songs for voice and lute are among the highlights.


From the New York Times



Igor Levit, piano (Sony)

Another year, another amazing album from Igor Levit. Like all this pianist’s recording projects, “Fantasia” is daringly yet elegantly programmed: Eight works from across some 200 years, with four meaty masterpieces each set alongside a smaller companion.

The album begins almost teasingly — if unsurprisingly, for a musician who has released the ubiquitous “Für Elise” as a single — with Bach’s evergreen “Air for the G String,” leading into a sumptuously glamorous account of that composer’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue in D minor. Liszt’s brooding transcription of Schubert’s song “Der Doppelgänger” emerges out of the shadowy ending of Liszt’s B minor Sonata, its grandeur and intimacy both captured here. Then comes more B minor, with a tiny Berg “Klavierstück” as a sip of aperitif before his Opus 1 Sonata, lucid but never chilly. A Busoni aficionado, Levit brings tautness without rigidity to tame the sprawling, potentially meandering, Bach-loving “Fantasia Contrappuntistica,” before closing with Busoni’s “Nuit de Noël,” another chromatic fantasia, gently snowy.

This is playing of rigorous, solemn control and, at the same time, endless seduction. Levit is always persuasive, giving even the most standard repertory the spark of revelation, and his poetic phrasing and touch convey both mysteries and immense satisfactions.


David Lang: ‘man made’

So Percussion; Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; Louis Langrée, conductor (Fanfare)

David Lang, the composer and co-founder of the Bang on a Can collective, has excelled at writing generally quiet music, like his aptly titled “the whisper opera” and his Pulitzer Prize-winning oratorio “the little match girl passion.” But I’m still a sucker for his punchier music — a more raucous side that has been featured on pieces like “cheating, lying, stealing” (1995), or this new EP from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s label.

That’s not to say that Lang’s 23-minute “man made,” a concerto for percussion quartet, rages from start to finish. It opens with the group So Percussion gently snapping some twigs. This celebrated ensemble is skilled at eliciting sonic theatricality from such textural conceits, but they can lay down a thwacking beat, too, as they do here. In its early minutes, “man made” turns to stark, barely connected percussive explosions, with the orchestra seeming to learn its material from the quartet.

Gradually, this process-music approach results in a grand, galvanizing communion. About midway through, you can find a joyous, extended section of revelry in which no one leads or follows. The music is vertiginous, and full of zigzagging motion, yet its grooving center holds. Credit to the players, under the baton of the Cincinnati Symphony’s music director, Louis Langrée. In contemporary pieces, like this one and Christopher Cerrone’s “A Body. Moving,” Langrée has shown how the light touch he routinely offers in Mozart can be used to grand effect in modern American music.



Isabelle Faust, violin (Harmonia Mundi)

There is no sure path to a satisfying encounter with unfamiliar music. More often than not, though, putting yourself in the hands of a supremely intelligent and curious artist will yield happy results. Such was my experience with Isabelle Faust’s new recording of solo violin works from the second half of the Baroque period. This is territory that many of us associate primarily with Bach, but Faust’s sampler of the vast store of other European music from this era — virtually all of it previously unknown to me — is sheer delight.

Whether by design or by chance, “Solo” also presents an unusually comprehensive picture of what makes Faust such a multifaceted and captivating musician. A series of “Ayres for the Violin” by Nicola Matteis the Elder and a fantasia by his son (consisting solely of arpeggios) show her gift for lyrical eloquence. In dance-flavored works by Louis-Gabriel Guillemain, she knows just when to roughen her tone to something darker and grittier, to superb expressive effect. A sonata by Johann Georg Pisendel and a partita by Johann Joseph Vilsmayr give us templates familiar from Bach; and while a few movements almost sound like they could be from his pen, most of this music is refreshingly airy and straightforward, and Faust plays it with a deft touch. The one well-known item here is the passacaglia that concludes Biber’s “Rosary” Sonatas, transfixing music that she renders with equal parts virtuosity and tranquillity.



Lea Desandre, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Dunford, lute (Erato)

The mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre and the lutenist Thomas Dunford count among today’s French classical music couples — see also: the conductor Raphaël Pichon and the soprano Sabine Devielhe — who are blending the personal and professional with a result that, so far, is only benefiting audiences.

Desandre and Dunford are performing at Carnegie Hall next week, but ready now is this centuries-spanning survey of French love songs. Relentlessly beautiful, extremely French, and restricted to the sounds of voice and lute, the program can feel flattened, yet you’d be hard-pressed to resist its sexy allure and intimacy.

Unsurprisingly, these artists excel in 17th-century works. Dunford’s serene, upward strums accompany Desandre’s pure melodic lines and gentle turns of musical phrase in Honoré d’Ambruys’s “Le doux silence de nos bois”; and they lend folky — whistling! — freedom to Charpentier’s “Auprès du feu l’on fait l’amour.”

Then there are pop songs and light music of the 20th century. An excerpt from André Messager “L’amour masqué” comes off as a standard of carefree whimsy; material previously sung by Françoise Hardy and Barbara makes for chic performances straight out of a cafe. At points, the modern intriguingly creeps into the Baroque. Charpentier’s “Sans frayeur dans ce bois,” with its gently plucked opening, narrow vocal range and speechlike rhythms, could have been written by Taylor Swift. And Michel Lambert’s “Ma bergère est tendre et fidèle,” in which a gritty exclamation is followed by a lightly flowing high tune, feels like an ancestor of Kate Bush.


‘Dynamic Maximum Tension’

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society (Nonesuch)

The bandleader Darcy James Argue is one of the great living composers for chamber orchestra. His eponymous Secret Society band — built on examples from the likes of Duke Ellington and Maria Schneider — records infrequently. But when Argue enters a studio, he tends to make sessions count.

This time, he and his collaborators have concocted an 11-track set that makes use of Argue’s supple ear for orchestration. If you’re a ’90s alt-rock kid, a transition to saxophone-led strut — midway through the opening number, “Dymaxion” — may make you wonder: Is this a tip of the hat to Morphine? (Indeed, Argue is a fan of that band.) The next track, “All In,” is a testament to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, but it also has some of the post-minimalist energy of the Bang on a Can cohort of composers. (Argue has also declared himself their fan.)

The big-band eminence Bob Brookmeyer is the dedicatee of “Winged Beasts” — and that piece’s inventive thematic transformation shows what Argue likely learned as one of Brookmeyer’s students. The album’s second half is dominated by the majestic, half-hour “Tensile Curves” — a tribute and response to Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” But don’t let it overshadow smaller slow-burners like “Ferromagnetic” or the inventive, swinging jewel “Mae West: Advice,” which features the vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant.