Despite frequent warnings in the press about the decline and fall of the classical recording industry, I think we are in a real "golden age." Technological developments have made it possible for independent labels to sprout up, providing an important outlet for stunning young talented musicians, and quite a few orchestras, chamber groups and individuals have been able to take advantage of accessible recording technology and on-line self-distribution, either on their own websites or through great consignment websites like Amazon.com and CDBaby.com, to record and market their own work. The result is a feast for the serious music collector. There is undoubtedly a wider and deeper recorded repertory readily available now than ever before in the history of recording, even as the giant international recording companies that dominated the industry when I began serious collecting as a teenager in the 1960s have descended to reissue mills, recycling the same core repertory recordings from the mid-20th century over and over, or have been merged out of existence.
One of my prime examples of an independent lable that looms huge in its significance is Albany Records. Apart perhaps from budget label Naxos, Albany is doing more than anybody else to preserve and distribute the work of currently living American composers and musicians. I'm not sure what financial arrangements support their large and varied release schedule, but I can only applaud and hope they can keep it up. Some recent Albany releases worth exploring:
Marya Martin Plays Eric Ewazen – Marya Martin is an excellent flutist, and Eric Ewazen is one of the most delightful composers of our time. Ewazen teaches at the Juilliard School. I might describe him as a temporary analogue to the great 19th-century French composer, Charles Camille St.-Saens, in that he produces beautiful music in great profusion, with a distinctive melodic gift always on display. In this Albany recording, Martin collaborates with excellent chamber musicians of the Bridgehampton (Long Island) Chamber Music Festival to perform: Flute Sonata; Mosaics for Flute, Bassoon and Marimba; Bridgehampton Suite for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello; SeaSkye Songs for Soprano, Flute, Violin, Cello, Piano and Percussion. The songs, here sung by the excellent Susan Narucki, are on texts by Ewazen's Juilliard colleague, Karen Wagner. The entire album is a joy to hear, with lively performances emanating from festival performing conditions in wonderful sound. The composer provides useful annotations and the booklet includes the song lyrics. The entire production is a model of how contemporary chamber music should be presented.
Jorge Martin's Cello Music, performed by Yehuda Hanini, with Walter Ponce (piano), William Schimmel (accordion), and Arti Dixson (percussion). Jorge Martin is the Cuban-American composer whose opera premiere in Fort Worth I attended in May 2010. Amazingly, considering the challenges of contemporary classical recording, a complete recording of his opera, Before Night Falls, appeared on Albany Records just months after the premiere, in an excellent recording with a full libretto in the booklet. Now we have a new disc of chamber music by Martin, all featuring the excellent cellist Yehuda Hanini, for whom much of this music was specifically written. In the combination of cello and piano, we are given a substantial four-movement sonata, a sequence of three nocturnes, and a set of Hollywood Variations. Interspersed with these are an unaccompanied solo, Recuerda, and an entertaining dance-like number for cello, accordion, and percussion. These interspersed pieces reflect the composer's Latino heritage, while the cello-and-piano works are in a more abstract modern idiom. Martin's music is tonal and melodic, but harmonically challenging, requiring more than a casual listen to achieve appreciation, but definitely worth the effort. I heard more in the sonata the second time through than the first, always a sign that a piece has depth as well as surface attractiveness. Fine sound was achieved in recording sessions at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in upper Manhattan and, per Albany's usual practice, there are illuminating booklet notes by the composer.
Another example of Albany's sterling support for contemporary and recent music is a collection of brass trios by the University of Maryland Brass Trio (Chris Gekker, Gregory Miller, and Matthew Guilford), in music by Ewazen, Lauren Bernofsky, Anthony Plog, Vaclav Nelhybel, Alan Hovhaness, and David Sampson. More than an hour of brass trio music might seem in prospect to be monotonous, but there is such diversity in style among the composers and such magnificent virtuosity on display from the performers that there is never any monotony, only enjoyment from this excellent collection. I fell in love with Nelhybel's music as a high school student playing double bass in the school band. Nelhybel, together with such excellent 20th century composers as Vincent Persichetti and Karel Husa, discovered that one way to get your music heard in America, where the symphony orchestras allot a tiny portion of their program to contemporary music, is to write for wind orchestra or concert band. Almost every high school of any size as well as any college or university with a football team and/or a music department has a band, and many of these organizations are capable of learning and performing complicated modern music at a high level, because they can spend much more time rehearsing a program than is practically available to a symphony orchestra. I remember learning and playing Nelhybel pieces in high school, where a semester's worth of rehearsals culminated in a December or May concert. It was fun to spend a semester learning the intricate rhythms and harmonies, and Nelhybel's Trio for Brass on this album brings it all back. Ewazen's Philharmonic Fanfare gets the disc off to a rousing start, and the other trios are inventive and involving.
When it comes to promoting contemporary American music, Naxos is also high on the list, and some recent releases are worth special mention. Those I've recently heard include: an exciting collection of inventively orchestrated music by Paul Fetler performed by Arie Lipsky and the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Symphony Orchestra; a wonderful entry in their Wind Band Classics series titled "Fanfare, Capriccio and Rhapsody," with John Boyd conducting ensembles from Indiana State and Kent State Universities in music by Ron Nelson, Fisher Tull, Warren Barker, and Andrew Boysen; Gisele Ben-Dor's extraordinary collection of orchestral music by Alberto Ginastera, licensed from various sources from recordings made with orchestras in London, Jerusalem and Cardiff (Wales) from 1997 through 2006; very beautiful orchestral works by Judith Lang Zaimont performed by Kirk Trevor and the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra; a set of a dozen piano preludes by the inventive American composer Richard Danielpour, stunning performed by Xiayin Wang in another sterling example of the fine acoustical frame presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York; and, finally, a recording of Louis Karchin's one-act opera Romulus, conducted by the composer.
I was privileged to attend one of the world premiere performances of Karchin's work at the Guggenheim Museum in 2007. In 2009, the cast reassembled to make this recording at the excellent recital hall of the State University of New York at Purchase. I was drawn to the concert by the participation of baritone Thomas Meglioranza in the leading role of Celestus. Meglioranza is in great from on this recording, together with the other cast members in this entertaining chamber opera: soprano Katrina Thurman, tenor Steven Ebel, and bass Wilbur Pauley. The Washington Square Ensemble provides the instrumental support. Karchin's setting of a translation of a Dumas play by Barnett Shaw is a through-composed lyrical effusion without any real set pieces, and it is helpful that Naxos's booklet includes the complete libretto, since listening without the scene-setting and descriptions could leave one quite confused about what is going on. This recording is an important contribution to documenting contemporary American opera and making it available to listeners and potential performers.
Two relatively new pianists have captured my attention recently: Vassily Primakov and Adam Laloum. Primakov has been recording steadily for several years for Bridge Records. The most recent release by this Moscow-born but now US-based pianist is devoted to Rachmaninoff, and so impressed me that I began searching out his earlier recordings. So far, I've explored about half a dozen discs and have never been less than favorably impressed, both by his very poetic performances and the superb sound and production achieved by Bridge. In addition to the audio recordings of Schubert, Dvorak, Chopin, and Mozart, there is a recent DVD of excellent studio performances of Brahms, Chopin and Scriabin. And Primakov has not neglected contemporary music, having performed the world premiere and participated in a recording of a piano concerto by Poul Ruders. Adam Laloum, a young French pianist, has a first recital disc out on the Mirare label, devoted entirely to Brahms. The program is cannily assembled to document the growing mastery of the composer, from the early Variations on an Original Theme, Op. 21, No. 1, through the middle-period Brahms of the 8 Piano Pieces, Op. 76, and Two Rhapsodies, Op. 79, culminating in the very lyrical and introspective 3 Intermezzi of Op. 117, part of the composer's late production of sets of short piano pieces. Here we have some basis for comparison, since the Primakov DVD includes the same Op. 117 set. Surprisingly, I find that these two young pianists, coming out of very different educational experiences and performing traditions, produce performances that strike me as very similar, although I find Laloum to be slightly more "laid back" in his approach than Primakov. Both are careful to produce a deep, non-percussive sonority, and to emphasize the introspective nature of the music. Both are quite successful as communicators, well worth hearing.
Primakov has a Mozart concerto cycle under way. The first two releases are extraordinary. I understand a third volume is awaiting release and a fourth is about to be recorded. Primakov brings a very poetic sensibility to this music, more disciplined than David Fray, less rigid than Evgeny Kissin can sometimes be, hitting an ideal medium, in my opinion. He receives excellent support from the Odense orchestra in Denmark. I hope that Laloum also gets an opportunity to expand his recorded repertory, and to find some opportunities to play in the U.S.
Finally, I wanted to mention a new recording by John Holt, the terrific trumpet player with the Dallas Opera Orchestra who teaches at the University of North Texas. Holt has been making exciting recordings for Crystal Records for several years now, and I've noted some of them in the past. He has a new release with music for trumpet and orchestra by Arutiunian, Hummel, Tartini, and Peaslee. The Tartini Concerto, actually an adaptation by Holt from a violin concerto, is performed with Kirk Trevor and the Slovak RSO; the remainder of the disk is performed with student ensembles from UNT. This is an amazing demonstration of the excellence of the music program at UNT. I listened to the disk on headphones without noting the identity of the accompanying orchestras, and I would never have guessed that the Tartini was the only piece performed with a "professional" ensemble. This undoubtedly relates back to my comments about high school bands above. I imagine the UNT musicians had much more rehearsal time than the Slovak RSO, which might have been close to sight-reading, given the amount of recording they do for various labels. The orchestra playing on the Tartini is the weakest on the album, although certainly serviceable enough. To hear a really extraordinary student orchestra at work, listen to the UNT Chamber Orchestra, led by Clay Couturiaux, in the challenging "Nightsongs" by Richard Peaslee, an eerie scene requiring extraordinary precision and fine tuning and delicacy of articulation. Anshel Brusilow is conductor of the other two pieces with the UNT Symphony, played a very high standard. Seeing his name also brought back happy memories of terrific Philadelphia Chamber Orchestra LP recordings for RCA back in the day (which have resurfaced, happily, on ArkivMusik.com's reissue series). Holt's work on this album is stellar throughout. As I've said before, this man sings through his trumpet, and the results are captivating. I can't praise this one highly enough. It is his 7th recording with Crystal, and every one, whether accompanied by piano or orchestra, is worth hearing.