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CD reviews: Great classical music with a local touch, from Spanish song to Brahms

CD reviews: Great classical music with a local touch, from Spanish song to Brahms

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We all need more music in our lives; the only problem is figuring out what to listen to in the limited time available to us. In the interests of helping you sort it out, here are some new recordings of merit. All of them happen to have St. Louis-area connections; all deserve to be heard widely.

The world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s “27” was a major hit for Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer. Telling an impressionistic version of the story of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, it’s now available in a two-CD album from Albany Records (Troy1549/50), recorded live in performance.

It’s a good opera, with a good cast; hearing it again just confirms that initial impression. Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, as Gertrude, and soprano Elizabeth Futral, as Alice, bring their distinctive vocal timbres to Gordon’s audience-friendly music. In a dramatic sense, they both own their roles, the self-described genius and the self-described wife.

Taking all the myriad other roles, from Picasso to Hemingway to a doughboy to Madame Matisse, are three young singers with tremendous vocal and dramatic gifts: Daniel Brevik, Tobias Greenhaugh and Theo Lebow. Michael Christie conducts members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with style, panache and clarity.

Soprano Corinne Winters began her career as a Gerdine Young Artist at OTSL and has built it internationally with the company’s support. (She’s back in St. Louis for Puccini’s “La Rondine,” which closes the company’s season this weekend.)

Her latest venture is a beautiful recording, “Canción Amorosa: Songs of Spain” (GPR 70013). Instead of the usual aria collection, it’s a selection of miniatures, in assorted characteristically Spanish styles, and a welcome addition to the CD shelf.

Winters’ dark-hued voice is perfect for this repertoire, and it shows a different side of her artistry. Pianist Stephen Blier is more than an accompanist; he’s a full-fledged collaborator. Lovely additions also come from mezzo-soprano Maya Lahyani (a perfect match for Winters’ sound) and guitarist Oren Fader. Highly recommended.

Speaking of Spanish music, SLSO English horn Cally Banham loves dance and loves tango. It follows, therefore, that she founded a tango orquesta, with the cor anglais taking the place of the bandoneon. Cortango Orquesta includes two other SLSO musicians — violin Asako Kuboki and double bass David DeRiso — and several pianists as they’re available, including Adam Maness of the Erin Bode Group and the 442s, who also plays guitar.

For the orquesta’s first recording, “Tandas” (Cortango.com), the usual forces have been joined by some of their other colleagues: flute Andrea Kaplan, trumpet Karen Bliznik and cellists Melissa Brooks and Bjorn Ranheim. Other artists taking part are pianist Adam De Sorgo, Julian Hasse on bandoneon (aka the squeezebox) and vocalist Mauro Peralta.

The album is a beautifully performed, infectious collection of sultry tangos, milongas and more. If you aren’t acquainted with the art form, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Former St. Louis Symphony Orchestra trumpeter Joshua MacCluer became principal trumpet of the Hong Kong Philharmonic a couple of seasons back and has done very well there. Proof of that comes with his new solo CD “Elevation.”

MacCluer is a producer as well as a performer; this is his fifth recording in the former role and his first as a classical soloist (with assists from several colleagues). There are works by Massenet and Mendelssohn in transcription, and others by Schubert and Fauré in which the trumpet takes the vocal line. MacCluer goes well beyond classical, though, with “What a Wonderful World” and “Stardust” taking their place in the lineup, as well as a terrific Dixieland arrangement of “Amazing Grace.”

The newest recording by Orli Shaham, wife of SLSO music director David Robertson, is “Brahms Inspired” (Canary Classics CC15). It matches three sets of late piano works by Johannes Brahms with music that inspired him (by Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Chopin) and music by Arnold Schoenberg and a trio of contemporary composers (Bruce Adolphe, Avner Dorman, Brett Dean) which was, in turn, inspired by Brahms.

It makes for an album that takes the listener on an intellectual as well as a musical journey, as the mental cross-references mount. In the Dean “Hommage a Brahms fur Klavier,” commissioned for and dedicated to Emanuel Ax, Shaham has followed Ax’s lead and placed Dean’s three works in between movements of the Brahms Klavierstucke, for a satisfying effect. The works by Adolphe and Dorman were commissioned by Shaham and play to her strengths: musical intelligence and integrity, fine technical chops and dedication to quality in all she does.

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Sarah Bryan Miller is the classical music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; she has also written on a variety of other topics.

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