5 Classical Music Albums You Can Listen to Right Now


Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale; John Adams, conductor (Nonesuch)

You would be hard-pressed to find a fan of John Adams and Peter Sellars’s “Girls of the Golden West” when it premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2017. Critics, who found its libretto aimless and its three-hour score baggy at best, mostly dismissed it.

What a difference revision makes. There was always precious material waiting to be unearthed from this opera’s hulking body, and after two revisions, Adams has gotten it right. The running time is now just over two hours; the story, clearer; the music, so vivid you feel immersed among the evocations of pickax swings and dark folk songs that populate his treatment of California’s gold rush.

The redemption of “Girls” recalls another Adams-Sellars effort, “Doctor Atomic,” which premiered in 2005 but blossomed only when a recording was released in 2018. Two of that album’s singers appear here: the rich-voiced soprano Julia Bullock, and the frighteningly powerful bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Joining them are “Girls” veterans (the bass-baritone Davóne Tines, the soprano Hye Jung Lee, the tenor Paul Appleby and the baritone Elliot Madore) as well as Daniela Mack, a newcomer who seems to have quickly settled into the score. The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s players behave like the Adams specialists they are.

If I could, I would send a copy of this recording to anyone who ever doubted the opera. JOSHUA BARONE

Barbara Hannigan, soprano; Bertrand Chamayou, piano (Alpha)

Barbara Hannigan has long been considered a modernist’s dream of a lyric coloratura soprano. She makes sense out of zany, taffy-pulling vocal writing without sacrificing the aesthetic appeal of her gleaming timbre, fluid legato and glossy passagework.

On her latest album, she and the pianist Bertrand Chamayou apply supple insights to Messiaen’s song cycles “Poèmes Pour Mi” and “Chants de Terre et de Ciel.” They navigate heady atmospheres with assured direction and subtly reconcile the composer’s blend of fervent religiosity and scenes of married and domestic bliss.

In “Chants,” they expound the subliminal gravity of Messiaen’s commitment to his first wife, Claire Delbos, whose nickname was “Mi” (“Bail Avec Mi”), and the uncomplicated joys he finds in his son (“Danse du Bébé-Pilule” and “Arc-en-Ciel d’Innocence”). They save rapture for “Poèmes”: In gentle, suggestive songs like “Ta Voix” and “Le Collier,” Hannigan blurs the distinction between physical and spiritual ecstasies. Her tone is warm; her sense of line, exquisite. Very much a partner, Chamayou brings mesmerizing prettiness to the triads that litter the scores with glassy, harmonically off-kilter effects. In moments of fever pitch, Hannigan’s voice takes on a tangy brightness that jostles the music’s delicacy.

As an interpreter of challenging material, Hannigan sings with a demented yet ravishing edge. Every now and then, though, it’s nice to hear her sound simply ravishing. OUSSAMA ZAHR

Decoda (Bright Shiny Things)

Members of the chamber group Decoda were also in Ensemble Connect, a fellowship program for young artists by Carnegie Hall, the Juilliard School and the Weill Music Institute. Ensemble Connect’s concerts have tended to offer low-cost, high-value programs of unusual repertoire; that spirit is audible on this recording, too.

“Revelry,” a two-movement work by the Imani Winds founder Valerie Coleman, comes first, and makes a strong impression. Its first section, “Mysterio,” is appropriately mercurial. Yet it also boasts vivid melodic and timbral ideas that come back into play during the second, more agitated section, “War.” In the final minutes, some churning, solemn motifs join up with jagged riffs to evoke a balletic take on aggression.

Decoda’s performance of Reza Vali’s “Folk Songs Set No. 9 for Flute and Cello” similarly shows off the wide-ranging skills of a living composer, and of the flutist Catherine Gregory and the cellist Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir. (Vali’s comparatively spare instrumentation also works in the album’s sequencing, coming between the fiery Coleman and similarly extroverted piano rags by William Bolcom, arranged for chamber ensemble.) With performances of this quality, you can see why Carnegie — which just named Decoda its first affiliate ensemble — would want to continue an association with these musicians. SETH COLTER WALLS

Hallé Orchestra; Mark Elder, conductor (Hallé)

Mark Elder and the Hallé of Manchester, England, offer exceptional performances of Elgar’s two symphonies on this release, with readings equal to the sterling reputation they have made for themselves as guardians of the British orchestral tradition. If you can hear pride in that heritage here, you can also hear how Elder has moved the tradition on; utterly refined, steadily paced and tonally as discerning as the music can bear, this is Elgar deeply tied to its European context, to Brahms and Wagner and Mahler. The First is excellent; the Second, more so.

But to think of this release as just another entry in the record catalog would miss the point. In August, Elder will conduct his last concert as music director of the Hallé, a little more than a quarter-century after he was appointed. His tenure in Manchester, like that of his forebear John Barbirolli, has embodied values that are increasingly unfashionable in the orchestral world today: dedication to a place, stewardship of an institution, commitment to a repertoire, evolution of a sound, cultivation of a style. This Elgar is in a sense the worthiest of farewells, a tribute not only to those 25 years, but also to what conducting can mean. DAVID ALLEN

Brad Mehldau, piano (Nonesuch)

With the 2018 album “After Bach,” the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau released his first official testament to Bach. But well before that — as on his piece “Sehnsucht,” recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 1999 — you could hear his appreciation for the composer. No matter how dense Mehldau’s thickets of counterpoint may get, he can also put over a melody. Wherever did he get that idea?

This set offers improvisations and original compositions alongside items from Bach. There’s warmth in the playing, but sometimes a driving energy as well. The Prelude No. 6 in D minor, from the first book of “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” zips by at a clip. But while his right-hand arpeggiations are dazzling, it’s not speed for speed’s sake. The fast tempo allows Mehldau to play with subtle, quick variations in his approach to the bass line — moving between punchy staccato and, in some moments, more flowing left-hand articulations.

It’s exciting, modern Bach. And it leads into a fine Mehldau original, with his lengthy “After Bach: Toccata” taking from Bach and jazz alike. This project may have started with a co-commission from Carnegie Hall, but that doesn’t mean it needs to stop. It’s easy to imagine this series continuing for the rest of his career. SETH COLTER WALLS



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