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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Arts & Music

Fine Tuned: New recordings offer journey of re-invention


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Rejoice, lovers of classical music. Today, Friday Extra begins an occasional column on new and noteworthy recordings. With the Bay area’s live music season about a month away, we offer five distractions until the local bands begin to play.

Most romantics love the tunefulness of Tchaikovsky, but why pair him on a recording with Arnold Schoenberg, that radical thinker who turned early 20th century music on its head? Well, “Journeys’’ (Sony Classical) creates a marriage of romanticism through two disparate but overlapping masterworks for six instruments: Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence’’ and Schoenberg’s “Transfigured Night.’’ The Emerson String Quartet, augmented by a viola and cello, plays with passion and intensity in its “journey” from tonality to the edge of atonality. A first-rate recording in every way, this disc offers a glimpse of romanticism at its height and its inevitable dive into expressionism.

The way she plays the harp, Yolanda Kondonassis will have no problem getting into heaven. More than a dozen of her recordings over the past two decades attest to her dexterity and depth of insight. The latest, “American Harp’’ (Azica Records), pays tribute to seven 20th century and contemporary American masters, including John Williams, Hannah Lash, Elliott Carter, and John Cage. Kondonassis, who has appeared as soloist with The Florida Orchestra, creates an atmosphere of delicacy, emotional range, and eloquence.

Patrons of Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts might remember a recent performance by the pianist Simone Dinnerstein, who blends classical and jazz styles in her work, if not always with success. Her latest adventure, “Bach Re-Invented,’’ (Sony Classical) is a rousing mix of baroque, gypsy, African, and bebop based on handful of Bach’s keyboard inventions. Dinnerstein teams with the eclectic troupe Absolute Ensemble, and armed with electric guitar, sax, accordion and drum kit deliver an improvisational romp that would have busted Bach’s buttons.

Few record labels have done more to promote contemporary composers than ECM, and its latest offering, “String Paths,’’ features the intensely hypnotic music of Dobrinka Tabakova. Born in Bulgaria in 1980, Tabakova writes under the arch of ancient and modern, of mystical and magisterial, particularly her glowing “Concerto for Cello and Strings’’ with its three movements marked “turbulent, longing, and radiant.’’ The disc also includes four chamber pieces, most notably the cloying “Suite in Old Style’’ for viola. Tabakova’s writing sounds effortless, if not ethereal, and she challenges listeners without making them feel uncomfortable. From the first to last notes on this disc, the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra and a top-notch group of soloists wrap us in a luminous blanket of sound.

Long before the cello enjoyed status as a superstar solo instrument, it served the part of continuo, or continuous harmony, for a larger group. Over the years, composers realized its potential, and by the mid-19th century the cello enjoyed center stage in concertos with such luminaries as the violin and piano. Celebrating the instrument’s early, formidable years is a new disc, “La Voce del Violoncello’’ (Passacaille Records), featuring eight little-known Italian composers. The virtuoso Elinor Frey leads a trio playing baroque instruments in music of delicious rasp and richness, more raw than refined. Imagine being at a concert in 17th century Naples, when tunings, techniques, and timbres may have seemed less polished but their sounds tilled from the earth.

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