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Spinning local

A batch of new CDs from the BSO and Boston artists

By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / July 19, 2009
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With the concert season well behind us, and with most live classical music having fled to the hills for the summer, you may finally have time to catch up on a few of the recordings made this year by Boston musicians and ensembles. What follows is a roundup of notable local discs from the last few months.

As the classical recording industry continues its downward spiral, the major orchestras have been increasingly choosing to go it alone. This year, the Boston Symphony Orchestra followed in the footsteps of the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in launching its own label, called BSO Classics. The first two recordings - Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloé’’ and Brahms’s “German Requiem’’ - are both taken from live performances under the baton of music director James Levine. Both are high-quality releases that present a remarkable approximation of what it’s like to hear a performance in Symphony Hall, in terms of the depth of sound, spaciousness, and immediacy. Together they make for a very promising label debut.

In the Ravel, an iconic score that the orchestra has recorded several times under music directors past, Levine and the players convey the silken delicacy and the suave sensuality of this music as well as its remarkable opulence of detail, from the glittering textures of the sunrise to the exhilarating power of the pirates’ dance and the raucous energy of the final scene.

In the Brahms, recorded during a series of performances in September 2008, Levine shows a wise sense of what Keats famously called “negative capability,’’ a gift for holding opposites in tension without forcing artificial resolution. In this case, the public and private dimensions of this work, its grandeur and intimacy, its mournful solemnity and its improbable blasts of joy, are each afforded their own poignant integrity. In the very first bars, the dark honeyed string textures lead the ears in with striking tenderness, and the orchestra throughout plays with characteristic warmth and vigor. For its part, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sings splendidly with all the pathos and tonal luminosity you could ask for. Soloists Christine Schaffer and Michael Volle are strong though not exceptional. (The BSO reprises the work Saturday at Tanglewood.)

Overall, these two discs aptly document the achievements of the Levine-era BSO, but for this label to ultimately live up to its potential it will have to present more than just great local performances of over-recorded standard repertoire. BSO Classics needs to become a showcase for the orchestra’s most exciting artistic work across the board, and that includes its performances of music with a visceral connection to our own time. That was the case with BSO’s 2007 recording of Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs’’ - a truly outstanding CD (released on the Nonesuch label) with an urgent raison d’etre that neither of these new releases can match. There have been additional BSO Classics releases including William Bolcom’s Symphony No. 6, but by making the Bolcom available for download only, it implicitly comes across as a lower priority. And as a side note, visuals shouldn’t matter but of course they do, and if the BSO can improve on the fusty packaging of these CDs, that will help its case.

Meanwhile the city’s other homegrown label, BMOP/sound, continues to impress. This scrappy in-house operation run by conductor Gil Rose and his Boston Modern Orchestra Project was launched early last year, and it has released a steady stream of impeccably produced, beautifully packaged discs with exacting and engaged performances of 20th- and 21st-century music. Several elegantly probing pieces by Brandeis-based composer David Rakowski were recently featured on a BMOP Sound disc called “Winged Contraption,’’ including his Piano Concerto in a strong performance by Marilyn Nonken.

But the label is also looking far beyond the Boston scene to highlight music by eminent European composers heard all too rarely in these parts. Just last month, it brought out “La Passione,’’ a disc devoted to the vital, propulsive music of the Dutch maverick Louis Andriessen. The two key pieces here - the title work and “Passeggiata in Tram in America e Ritorno’’ - are both knockout settings of Dino Campana’s darkly surrealist poetry, both of them composed for the pure-voiced and wonderfully expressive mezzo-soprano Cristina Zavalloni and the fine violinist Monica Germino. New music fans will also want to know about a BMOP/sound release called “Voices,’’ given over to the highly eclectic music of the clarinetist and composer Derek Bermel, who draws here on the traditional musical cultures of both Ghana and Bulgaria, and is also fired by a deep love of jazz. It’s those jazz interests that infuse his colorful and high-spirited clarinet concerto “Voices,’’ in which he personally takes up the solo line with skill and charisma.

While do-it-yourself is clearly the direction the classical recording industry is heading, the established labels are still hobbling along. Telarc this year has released discs of Benjamin Zander leading London’s Philharmonia Orchestra as well as Martin Pearlman leading Boston Baroque. Zander’s recording is of Bruckner’s colossal Fifth Symphony, and it is delivered here with abundant conviction and expressive force as well as a powerful grasp of the music’s vast architecture. Fans of the conductor’s pre-concert talks will also appreciate the companion disc on which Zander provides both clear musical explication and a personal gloss, describing how his grandfather read Bruckner’s score as a young soldier on the Russian front in World War I.

Pearlman meanwhile leads his period instrument band in an excellent new version of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.’’ The young locally trained violinist Christina Day Martinson is the ear-catching soloist, offering a light-footed, tasteful, and supremely energetic take on these familiar works. A pair of Concerti Grossi by Geminiani rounds out the disc. And finally, the Lydian Quartet has released a new CD on Centaur devoted to the first four quartets of John Harbison, written over nearly two decades. This is richly conceived, passionately executed music that seems at once steeped in the genre’s deep traditions and determined to say something freshly personal. The Third Quartet was actually written for the Lydians but they play with bite and authority throughout this disc, as if they owned the lot of them.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

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