Clouds, Concertos And A Trip To Fiji: New Classical Albums

Dec 11, 2011
Originally published on February 10, 2012 2:07 pm

With all the chatter about the death of the compact disc, anxiety in the recording industry and the domination of downloads, the flood of CDs overflowing my mailbox never seems to recede. Need a new Bruckner 4th, an Adès anthology or piano music by Pärt? How about Azerbaijani concertos, Schubert sonatas or a new Midsummer Night's Dream? Those were among the two dozen or so discs I unwrapped just last week. How to choose? For this visit to weekend All Things Considered, I went for something old (stunning albums of nearly 300-year-old music by Bach and Vivaldi), something new (Toshio Hosokawa's atmospheric adventures for the Japanese sho) and something guaranteed to blow away the winter blahhs (Michael Torke's infectious Fiji). Fear not. Classical CDs are here to stay for a while. These four (below) are just a few of the finest.


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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Time now for music. And today, NPR classical producer Tom Huizenga is back with some new recordings that have crossed his desk recently.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIVALDI'S CELLO CONCERTO IN G MINOR)

RAZ: That's one of Vivaldi's cello concertos in a new recording featuring Berlin's Academy for Ancient Music. Tom Huizenga is in the studio with me to talk about this and many other recordings. It's great to have you back, Tom.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Guy, it's good to be back, as always.

RAZ: And who are we hearing here? Who are we listening to?

HUIZENGA: It's a Frenchman named Jean-Guihen Queyras, and it's really just fun to listen to him tear it up in this final allegro from Vivaldi's cello concerto in G minor.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIVALDI'S CELLO CONCERTO IN G MINOR)

RAZ: And, Tom, people say that cello doesn't rock.

HUIZENGA: It rocks right there, I think.

RAZ: Indeed, it does.

HUIZENGA: That's a Vivaldi, and kind of a little Shredfest mode there. I really like it. It's one of a couple dozen cello concertos that Vivaldi wrote for the young residents of this girls' orphan's home called La Pieta in Venice. And that's where he actually started his career in 1703.

These orphans' homes, by the way, they're not like what we think of them today. They're actually kind of a big deal, the center of a lot of musical life in Venice at the time. And they had regular concerts all the time that were very well attended by people from the local community and people traveled around to come and hear them.

RAZ: I take it that these Vivaldi concertos don't all, sort of race along at this kind of speed metal pace, do they?

HUIZENGA: No. Not exactly. And it's simplifying it, but Vivaldi kind of had two speeds: fast and slow. And he set up almost all of his 500-some-odd concertos in this formula fast, slow, fast. And that really, Guy, that's how the concerto form, as we know it, was created, essentially by Vivaldi.

I think - let's hear one of the slow and beautiful movements from one of these concertos. And here you can really kind of bask in the warm nutty tone of Queyras' cello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in a new album of cello concertos by Vivaldi. Tom, what else you got for us?

HUIZENGA: All right. This next thing is quite different. Ready to drift up to the clouds?

RAZ: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOUD AND LIGHT")

RAZ: You bring some weird stuff, Tom.

HUIZENGA: I try to please.

RAZ: This is actually hurting my ears a little bit.

HUIZENGA: Well, it's a recent music by Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa. And he's been busy lately writing music for the traditional, and very old, by the way, Japanese mouth organ. It's called the sho. And it might sound a little bit like our Western harmonica, but it looks completely different, something like a - imagine a small, like, soup bowl with a cover on it and then up to like 17 bamboo pipes sticking up out of it like - almost like pipe organ pipes.

RAZ: Hmm. How do you actually play that instrument?

HUIZENGA: Well, you blow in and out of this larger tube that comes out of the base so you can produce very long stretches of sound. And this piece we're hearing now is called "Cloud and Light." And I think it's just a perfect soundtrack for an airplane ride. So the first instrument we'll hear is the sho, and then the strings almost imperceptibly fold in. It's kind of like watching these wispy cirrus clouds and the puffy cumulous clouds slowly intersect each other outside the airplane window.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOUD AND LIGHT")

RAZ: That's "Cloud and Light" by composer Toshio Hosokawa. And, Tom, you always bring us interesting stuff. I think the folks listening to our conversation now, I think many of them will be with me. That was a little weird.

HUIZENGA: Well, I think if you - you know, just listening to a little snippet like that is not going to - you have to, like, immerse yourself.

RAZ: I'll give it a shot.

HUIZENGA: Good.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Tom Huizenga. He's classical producer for NPR Music, and he's brought with him a few of the more interesting recordings that have crossed his desk recently. Tom, let's get out of the clouds for a moment and bring us back down to Earth. I'm sure you must have something vocal in this stack that I am looking at.

HUIZENGA: I do, indeed.

RAZ: All right.

HUIZENGA: It's a recent CD of Bach cantatas sung by countertenor Andreas Scholl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCHLUMMERT EIN")

RAZ: Tom, you very quickly said countertenor, and I hope people didn't miss that because they might mistake this voice for a woman's voice. But in fact, Andreas Scholl is not a woman.

HUIZENGA: No. He's definitely a man. That's because countertenors do sing in the alto range like a female mezzo soprano but they, you know, they sing falsetto.

RAZ: Why? I mean - and presumably, there are not that many of them out there.

HUIZENGA: Well, there are more than you think these days because of the resurgence the last 25 years in Baroque opera, especially. And, you know, hey, in general, it's not unusual for like, for dudes to be singing in falsetto...

RAZ: No.

HUIZENGA: ..up there in the soprano range.

RAZ: Right.

HUIZENGA: Like think of, OK, Smokey Robinson...

RAZ: Okay.

HUIZENGA: ...Prince.

RAZ: Yes.

HUIZENGA: But, you know, another reason why Andreas Scholl sings this way is he's following this long tradition. Ages ago, women were not allowed to sing church music, so men or boys had to sing those high marks.

RAZ: It is really gorgeous.

HUIZENGA: I think so. He's - Andreas Scholl has been called, well, I'm not sure if he likes it or not, but he's been called the Cadillac of countertenors. And you can hear it's due to this very plush, creamy, beautiful tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCHLUMMERT EIN")

RAZ: That's a new recording by the countertenor Andreas Scholl singing Bach. Tom, what's up next?

HUIZENGA: Feel like a trip to Fiji?

RAZ: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIJI")

HUIZENGA: This is "Fiji," and it's a 17-minute piece by the Milwaukee-born Michael Torke.

RAZ: It really sounds like a journey, like he's taking you somewhere. What is going on in this piece "Fiji"? What are we hearing?

HUIZENGA: Well, he calls it Fiji but, you know, it really has a serious South American groove to it and kind of a pop sensibility. He starts with a samba rhythm, and then he builds on its interlocking parts by choosing pitches in the winds and the strings in this small orchestra, and they correspond to each other and to what's happening in the percussion section. So essentially, everything that's in the percussion is mirrored but in layers in the rhythms of the other instruments.

RAZ: Let's hear a little bit more of that, Tom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIJI")

RAZ: That's "Fiji" by Michael Torke.

HUIZENGA: And that's Clark Rundell leading the 10 ensemble, it's called. It's a little spin off group from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

RAZ: It's just delightful, Tom. It's such great music.

HUIZENGA: And really perks you up. I think it's - gets your toes moving, something to blow away the winter blahs.

RAZ: This is my pick from your collection today, Tom.

HUIZENGA: Glad you like it.

RAZ: That's Tom Huizenga. He is the classical producer at NPR Music. You can hear more from his picks today at his blog, Deceptive Cadence. You can find that at nprmusic.org. Tom, thank you so much.

HUIZENGA: Thanks, Guy. Always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FIJI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.