We periodically hear eulogies for the classical-music recording industry, which, like classical music itself, is often presumed to be a few breaths away from expiration. Yet beautiful and challenging work is still being written, new ensembles and performers continue to shed fresh light on older repertoire, and someone finds a way to transmit some portion of it to the public. So here are a few noteworthy recordings that have crossed our path.
There's no shortage of groups, especially English ones, singing Renaissance polyphony, and such ensembles as the Tallis Scholars and the Sixteen have set the bar awfully high. But Stile Antico, a group of 13 young British singers, easily meets the standard. Their first release is "Music for Compline" (Harmonia Mundi), a collection of music composed for the last traditional Christian service in the day. The members of Stile Antico demonstrate the immaculate ensemble work and balance of better-known groups -- remarkably, since they sing without a conductor -- but their sound is richer and more deeply hued. The final work on the CD -- an antiphon by the much-neglected English composer Hugh Aston -- is astonishing for its quiet spiritual intensity.
Handel's concerti grossi constitute the heart of his orchestral music, yet they've never gained the popularity of his "Water Music" and "Music for the Royal Fireworks." Still, they're innovative, endlessly fascinating works. The first set he published, the six concerti of Opus 3, are on the first CD by the Academy of Ancient Music under its new music director, harpsichordist Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi). It's the first in a planned series of Handel recordings, and we can hope that all of them have this set's fresh, vibrant energy. The use of winds in these works was particularly novel, and the academy's players are superb throughout.
If it seems as if the major labels do little more than continually re-release their back catalog in a variety of guises . . . well, it's sort of true. But that can be a blessing, as in the case of Decca's collection of Janácek operas conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. More than anyone, Mackerras is responsible for the surge of interest in these magnificent works. When he began these recordings in the 1970s, they were infrequently staged or recorded; now the best of them, like "Jenufa" and "Káta Kabanová," are becoming mainstays.
Until recently the fruits of Mackerras's labor were available only as expensive imports, but Decca has helpfully assembled the five operas he recorded, along with the "Sinfonietta" and "Taras Bulba," on nine budget-priced CDs. The drawback is that no librettos are included, but with a little diligence they can be hunted down. It's worth the effort.
Finally, for those who like to get their classical fix via download, Deutsche Grammophon has been releasing a series of concerts via iTunes. Most of it is orchestral fare, from the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, but the label recently offered its first release from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. "Debussy and the Moderns" pairs each of the French master's three chamber sonatas with a work by a contemporary composer. Hearing his elusive violin sonata sandwiched between Kaija Saariaho's "Je sens un deuxième coeur" (I Feel a Second Heart) and Marc-Andre Dalbavie's "Axiom" is a reminder of how path-breaking Debussy's music was. It's available on iTunes: Throw it on your iPod and hit shuffle for a funky good time. Then see the group perform Prokofiev, Bartok, and Dvorak at the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum on Sunday. 617-278-5156, gardnermuseum.org
Also on the bill are Dvorak's "American" Quartet and Brahms's String Quintet No. 2 with violist Roger Tapping of the New England Conservatory. Presented by
The Boston Secession offers an unusual program of choral minimalism, including works by Arvo Pärt, William Duckworth, and Gavin Bryars.
Also on the bill is the world premiere of "Transport," a movement from Ruth Lomon's oratorio-in-progress "Testimony of Witnesses," which sets texts by 16 Holocaust victims. At First Church in Cambridge, Congregational. 617-499-4860, bostonsecession.org
And the Boston Camerata has assembled another intriguing program of French fare. "A Night's Tale: A Tournament of Love" is based on a medieval poem of a tournament in a French castle. The production, by the Camerata's Anne Azéma, premiered last month in France and was recorded for future release. The first American performances are tonight at Church of the Immaculate Conception in Boston and tomorrow night at Boston College's St. Ignatius Parish. 866-427-2092; bostoncamerata.org