Molloy President James Lentini’s Album Named One of The Top Classical Albums of 2020
The pandemic did not stop artists from releasing important classical recordings in 2020.
Here are the best:
Kevin Cole: "Gershwin: Concerto in F" (Naxos).
Until now, pianist Oscar Levant's historic recording of Gershwin's beloved Concerto in F (featured in the Gene Kelly film musical "An American in Paris") was the only one worth treasuring. Now there's another: Cole's recording with the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic, conducted by David Alan Miller. Though Levant's performance remains definitive - thanks to his brilliant technique, daring tempos and innate jazz sensibility - Cole's now stands alongside Levant's. This is due not only to Cole's idiomatic way with Gershwin but also to the recording's audiophile clarity, plus a new performance edition that comes as close to the composer's intentions as is possible at this late date.
"Through Time and Place: Compositions by James Lentini" (Navona Records).
American composer Lentini has gathered several of his major orchestral works in this alluring album, which attests to his expressive range and compositional virtuosity. More important, works such as his imposing Symphony No. 1 ("Through Time and Place"), the joyous Sinfonia di Festa and the profoundly lyrical "Three Sacred Meditations" convey a palpable optimism and hope sorely needed in this difficult year. It's easy to get lost in the embrace of these sounds.
Riccardo Muti and Chicago Symphony Orchestra & Chorus: "Shostakovich 13: 'Babi Yar'" (CSO Resound).
CSO music director Muti made history two years ago, daring to open the 2018-19 season with Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, "Babi Yar." As its title suggests, the work - inspired by Yevgeny Yevtushenko's poem of the same name - reflects on the machine-gun massacre of 33,771 Jews in a ravine outside Kiev on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941. Shostakovich's epic confronts this tragedy with eyes wide open, and Muti's performance leading massive orchestral-choral forces and bass Alexey Tikhomirov stands as a major statement on human rights at a time when it's desperately needed.
Conspirare: "The Singing Guitar" (Delos).
Composer-conductor Craig Hella Johnson and his choral ensemble Conspirare may be best known for "Considering Matthew Shepard," a searing-yet-hopeful oratorio about the hate-crime murder of its title character. Johnson and Conspirare continue to create indelible work, as in "The Singing Guitar," which pairs Conspirare's sublime voices with guitar accompaniment. The melismatic chant of Reena Esmail's "When the Guitar," the poignant tone painting of Nicol Muhly's "How Little You Are," and the storytelling character of Kile Smith's "The Dawn's Early Light" illuminate Conspirare's versatility and singular sound.
Niv Ashkenazi: "Violins of Hope" (Albany Records).
The Violins of Hope project has made headlines around the world by restoring - and returning to service - instruments that Jewish musicians owned before and during the Holocaust. Though many of these artists were murdered, their music symbolically endures, especially on this recording. Violinist Ashkenazi plays an instrument believed to have been created between 1900 and 1929, and he brings it back to life via "Jewish repertoire from throughout its lifetime," he observes in the album's liner notes. The result is intensely felt performances of repertoire by Ernest Bloch, Robert Dauber, John Williams, George Perlman and others, a fitting tribute to the Violins of Hope.
Will Liverman: "Whither Must I Wander" (Odradek Records).
Baritone Liverman, a Ryan Opera Center alum, transcends barriers of genre and style on this immensely appealing album. From Ralph Vaughan Williams' "Songs of Travel" to Aaron Copland's "At the River," from James Frederick Keel's "Three Salt-Water Ballads" to the traditional "Ten Thousand Miles Away," Liverman proves equally compelling in high-toned classical repertoire and warmly populist fare. His inviting, supple instrument finds nimble accompaniment from pianist Jonathan King, making this a deeply memorable feast of song.
Grossman Ensemble: "Fountain of Time" (CCCC Records).
The emergence of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition, at the University of Chicago, has been a significant development for new music in this city. The latest proof comes in the form of "Fountain of Time," featuring the center's resident Grossman Ensemble. Works by Shulamit Ran, Anthony Cheung, David Dzubay, Tonia Ko and David "Clay" Mettens attest to the ensemble's technical acuity, stylistic breadth and artistic vision.
"Let Evening Come: American Songs Old & New" (Albany Records).
Even in a country as comparatively young as the United States, the art song tradition runs deep. "Let Evening Come" spans 20th and 21st century repertoire, with sterling and emotionally charged performances of music by Frank La Forge (dating from 1906 to 1925), Robert Spillman (2015, 2016 and 2018) and Lori Laitman (2014). Sopranos Emily Martin and Ariana Wyatt make the most of every phrase, with Richard Masters summoning practically orchestral color at the piano.
Pacifica Quartet: "Contemporary Voices" (Cedille Records).
Three of America's most engaging composers - Shulamit Ran, Jennifer Higdon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich - are the "Contemporary Voices" of this bracing album by the superb Pacifica Quartet. Of key importance: the world premiere recording of Ran's "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory - String Quartet No. 3," dispatched with unmistakable and apt ferocity.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.