Classical New Releases, Winter 2015: Check Them Out!

Feb 23, 2015

WRTI's Mark Pinto, host of the Classical New Releases show, fills you in on the latest and the greatest classical music CDs every Saturday at 5 pm. Here are five newly released recordings he recommends:

Faure: Masques et bergamasques. From the late 1980s through the first decade of the 21st century, the profile of the Seattle Symphony was raised considerably in the music world through a series of trailblazing and authoritative recordings of great and neglected American orchestral works.  This was the achievement of the orchestra's longest-serving music director, Gerard Schwarz

Now in his fourth season as music director, Frenchman Ludovic Morlot is winning critical acclaim by taking the orchestra in new directions, performing Stravinsky and Britten alongside the works of the great French composers of the 20th century. 

Cellist Efe Baltacigil
Credit Pete Checchia

This new recording, on the orchestra's own label, collects many of the iconic works of Gabriel Fauré, whose stylish and graceful late Romantic style influenced many composers well into the 20th century. The recording also serves to showcase the wonderfully dynamic and lively acoustics of Seattle's Benaroya Hall and the talents of three of the orchestra's principal players. One of these is former Philadelphia Orchestra Associate Principal Cello Efe Baltacigil, who imbues Fauré's Elegie with a mournfully dark glow and a nimbleness and solidness of tone that show him very much at home in these surroundings. In addition to outstanding soloists, Morlot's orchestra boasts a solid string section and cohesive orchestral blend. Together they bring tender and effective drama to the music from Pelléas et Mélisande, the centerpiece of a delightful disc of Fauré favorites.

Elina Garanca: Meditation. The disc's title gets it just right; it's a recording conducive to meditation and contemplation. Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca has released a personal selection of sacred and spiritual works, which she says attest to her search and the eternal longing for inner peace. 

It's a captivating and wide-ranging collection of short works that finds Garanca singing in Latin, English, French, and Latvian, with the Latvian Radio Choir providing occasional accompaniment. Perhaps not surprisingly for a veteran of the world's opera stages, many of her selections are by composers better associated with opera or from operas themselves, e.g., Gounod, Bizet, Puccini, and Mascagni (the "Regina Coeli" from Cavalleria Rusticana and an "Ave Maria" based on that opera's famous "Intermezzo.")

There are quite a few pleasant discoveries here, too, including works by two contemporary Latvian composers. Ugis Praulins' Dievaines for soloist and choir develops from a simple folk melody, with guitar and tin whistle in the accompaniment, to a soaring anthem with a pop beat - an awe-inspiring experience that ends rather abruptly. Two chant-like a cappella choral pieces by Peteris Vasks are the essence of tranquility, featuring gentle, slowly resolving harmonies. 

The disc concludes with a hauntingly beautiful "Ave Maria," long attributed to late-16th/early-17th century Italian Renaissance composer Giulio Caccini, but now known to have been composed by the late Russian guitarist Vladimir Vavilov in 1970! 

Garanca's performances on the recording are reverent, forsaking theatricality, and with just the right amount of heft and gravitas.  The choir and orchestra, conducted by Garanca's husband Karel Mark Chichon, envelop her in a warm cathedral of sound. Elina Garanca has indeed found contentment - and you just might, too. 

Alisa Weilerstein: Solo. American cellist Alisa Weilerstein has blossomed into a major talent. Her incomparable technique and soulful, passionate performance style are on full display here in her first solo release.  Performing 20th and 21st century works inspired by Hungarian, Argentinian, Spanish, and Chinese folk music, Weilerstein completely inhabits each piece with a soulful, very physical, and often searing musicality. 

In Bright Sheng's Seven Tunes Heard in China, she slides and bends pitches as though playing a Chinese erhu. Her standout performance, though, is in Zoltan Kodaly's 1915 Sonata, an earthy, 35-minute tour-de-force that explores every facet of the cello, offering abundant opportunities for pyrotechnical display. Weilerstein is in total command of her instrument here, with uninhibited expressiveness matched by pitch-perfect intonation even in lightning-fast runs.  It's a spellbinding performance in an album that'll knock any cello lover's socks off. 

Holly Hubbs is an ambassador for the classical saxophone

Holly Hubbs: Crossing the Break. I suspect there may be a number of you for whom classical saxophone is not your cup of tea. This new recording may change your attitude. Holly Hubbs, professor of music at Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA, is a passionate advocate for her instrument, which does not have a long history of original repertoire. For this recording, made at Ursinus' Bomberger Memorial Hall, she has transcribed four works for soprano saxophone - three from the 20th century and one from the late 18th - that were originally written for clarinet.  Similarities in sonority and timbre between the two instruments are very much audible in many passages, to the point that you would be forgiven if you thought you were hearing a clarinet playing. 

If Hubbs' smooth portamento, warm, bell-like tone, and intuitive phrasing doesn't win you over, the music itself is bound to. Hubbs is joined by fellow Ursinus professor John French, a sensitive presence on piano, and, in the Bruch pieces, by violist Nina Cottman. 

The Bruch work, with its singularly mellow instrumentation, bursts with gorgeous romantic melodies that are by turns aching, hauntingly beautiful, cheery, and wistful. The Ten Pieces of Moyse are evocative miniatures composed in a variety of styles, each telling its own sometimes impressionistic, sometimes grotesque, but always human, story. 

Hubbs shines brightest, however, in Gretchaninov's neoclassical Sonata, which is a real discovery. After a sweet, ambling, and unassuming opening movement, the second movement pulsates and gives Hubbs the opportunity to display her considerable chops in a series of fast scales, rolls, and roulades. Listen to excerpts from Crossing the Break here.

Boston Symphony Orchestra: Wagner and Sibelius. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is in good hands these days, with 36-year-old Latvian conductor Andris Nelsons in his first season as music director. This disc shows the orchestra in fine form at Symphony Hall in concert recordings from their current season - September and November, 2014, respectively.

The Wagner Tannhauser overture opened the orchestra's season, and it's one of the most lyrical and cantabile performances on record, boasting clear string articulation in Wagner's repeated descending figures. Nelsons' Sibelius Two evokes a light and airy landscape, and the performance again features sumptuous string playing and effective and subtly built climaxes.  Nelsons' debut recording as Boston's music director is an impressive one, showing a young conductor eagerly putting his stamp on one of the nation's great orchestras.     

Mark Pinto is host of the Classical News Releases show, Saturdays, 5 to 6 pm on WRTI.