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Vespers, Habaneras And Early Morning Walks: New Classical Albums

By Tom Huizenga | NPR
Saturday, April 6, 2013

Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Not Taken" begins with the line: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood." Frost's traveler must choose between them. But slide that metaphor over to the world of classical music and you will discover hundreds of paths to explore. In this visit to All Things Considered, host Jacki Lyden and I share the radiant voices of a top-notch Latvian choir; the bustling energy of a young, smart string quartet; the sophistication of a venerable but embattled symphony orchestra; and a potent alliance between a jazz composer and an adventuresome opera singer.

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Rachmaninov: All-Night Vigil - 'Gladsome Light'

Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil.Ondine

In 1915, just two years before the Russian Revolution, Sergei Rachmaninov wrote the breathtaking All-Night Vigil, a high-water mark for Russian Orthodox choral music. But the work had a short shelf life as the Bolsheviks cracked down on religion. These days, recordings of the work abound, but this new version by the Latvian Radio Choir and conductor Sigvards Kļava is among the best. There's no orchestra, just voices, yet Rachmaninov applies terrific coloristic and orchestral effects. In one section, sopranos ring out like tolling church bells. And here, listen for the rich, symphonic layering he gets with groups of voices shining like rays of light through stained glass.

John Adams: 'Habanera' (from John's Book of Alleged Dances)


John Adams might be best known for operas based on such real-life events as Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, but he has written smaller-scale music as well. Fellow Traveler, a terrific new album from the young musicians of the Attacca String Quartet (still working toward graduate degrees at Juilliard), features all the string quartet music Adams has written so far. It includes John's Book of Alleged Dances, with its twisted hoedowns and funky habaneras and his more serious String Quartet from 2008. This eclectic piece shifts impressively from repeating figures and popcorn-like pizzicato (a nod to Adams' minimalist roots) to sweeping melodies that suddenly appear from nowhere.

Maria Schneider: Winter Morning Walks — 'Perfectly Still This Solstice Morning'


Intersections of jazz and classical aren't rare, but this collaboration between bandleader and composer Maria Schneider and opera singer Dawn Upshaw is special. Winter Morning Walks is almost a three-way collaboration if you count Ted Kooser, the former U.S. poet laureate, whose poems Schneider chose for this project. Recovering from cancer, he wasn't allowed in the sun, so he took pre-dawn walks. He also was stymied in his poetry. But one day he tried a short poem as a postcard to a friend. Soon he was sending one a day and ended up with 100. With Schneider's string-rich score and Upshaw's sensitive delivery, Winter Morning Walks unfolds like a song cycle, a moving marriage of words and music.

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Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 1 - Scherzo (excerpt)


The musicians and management of the Minnesota Orchestra have locked horns in a bitter labor dispute. The ensemble hasn't played a regular concert in more than six months. Luckily, we can at least hear the group with its fine conductor, Osmo Vänskä, on a new album, a continuation of their survey of the symphonies by Jean Sibelius. Within a fleet, exuberant account of the First Symphony lies a punchy Scherzo that shows off the orchestra's glittering winds.

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