5 Classical Music Albums You Can Listen to Right Now

Adam Kent, piano (Albany)

Tania León’s “Stride” won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for music. While we wait for an official recording of that, we have this survey of her piano catalog.

The pianist Adam Kent has the measure of León’s sound throughout, whether he’s dealing with student pieces written in the 1960s or more recent items like “Homenatge,” from 2011. In the latter, he brings a virtuoso’s zest to the dance rhythms and bluesy clusters that cavort in the composition’s opening minutes. But he also offers a patient, less showy sensibility during the ruminative airs of the final minutes.

In liner notes, León cites the son clave rhythm of a song from her native Cuba as informing one piece; other items on the album elaborate on choice examples from Bach (“Variación”) and Sondheim (“Going… Gone”). Throughout, Kent pays as much attention to León’s formal invention as to the way she reworks her diverse inspirations.

The album’s sequencing keeps you on your toes. Poised miniatures from the composer’s apprentice years (including “Rondó a la Criolla” and “Homenaje a Prokofiew”) directly precede denser, more mature standouts like “Rituál” and “Mística.” Although León’s language is different from decade to decade, her ear for slightly bent phrases in the early works can help prepare a listener for the way she later learned to make starker dissonances dance. SETH COLTER WALLS

Latvian Radio Choir; Sigvards Klava, conductor (Ondine)

John Cage was barely a choral composer. But by combining the couple of pieces he wrote for chorus with a creative interpretation of the flexible instrumentation of a few other scores, you can arrive at an hour or so of mysterious, wordless music for vocal ensemble. “Hymns and Variations” (1979) is the earliest work on this intimate and luminous new album from the Latvian Radio Choir. Cage subtracts some notes from two hymns by the early American composer William Billings, and extends the duration of some that remain, creating an eerily pure, serene suggestion of 18th-century harmonies.

Incorporating a degree of the musicians’ choices into a structure of set timings, the other three pieces here are from the final years of Cage’s life. “Four2” (1990) — meaning it’s the second score that he wrote for four performers in this body of late work — was composed for a high school choir in Oregon; the hovering, iridescent tones are vocalizations on the letters of that state’s name. “Five” (1988) is similarly shimmering and succinct, but “Four6” (1992) is a 30-minute behemoth, with patient waves of meows, squawks, chirps, keens, cries, grim laughter, panting, squealing, whistling and chattering, all shaping a chaotically alive jungle of sound. ZACHARY WOOLFE

Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)

The portrait of Beethoven that Yannick Nézet-Séguin creates through his conducting tends to be one of monumental grandeur, of this composer as a towering Great Man. Sometimes that’s true; but in the nine symphonies there is also wit and lightness, and sweetness between the storms.

Nézet-Séguin treaded this territory last season, in a survey of the symphonies at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Reviewing the final concert, of the First and Ninth, I heard a conductor struggling to navigate the contrasting scales of these two works, which were both played with outsize, unreliably balanced sound.

This cycle, recorded last year with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, is on balance better than the Carnegie performances. The First is here appropriately fleet, with an emphasis on the innovative swerve the symphony takes in its third movement. There are still some perplexing balance choices — a muddled opening of the Seventh, and a Fifth that luxuriates too much in its drama. But Nézet-Séguin’s treatment of Beethoven as ahead of his time pays off in an illuminating Second, a poetically compelling Third and a delicate, patient Sixth.

That the Ninth here is markedly different from my memory of the Philadelphia concert — or even Nézet-Séguin’s recently released account with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra — is a sign that his interpretation is not fixed. If he returns to this material, I hope experience will lead to more assured restraint. JOSHUA BARONE

Matthias Goerne, baritone; Daniil Trifonov, piano (Deutsche Grammophon)

The German baritone Matthias Goerne sings across a range of compositional styles on this album — works by Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Berg and Shostakovich — but the feeling is often the same: anguished.

His intensity doesn’t mean the album is monotonous. Far from it: Goerne’s instrument, with its velvety crevices, catches darkness and light, particularly in Schumann’s “Dichterliebe.” His baritone comfortably encompasses Schumann’s gracious melodies, with a voix mixte so gorgeous you could mistake him for a tenor, and a robustness that brings to mind the bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

The star pianist Daniil Trifonov’s playing, tasteful in the extreme, tips from elegance into grimness, but Goerne commits to its inspiration, singing Schumann’s cycle as a narrator already mourning a love he hasn’t lost yet.

The album follows precisely the duo’s Carnegie Hall program from 2018, opening with a dreamy account of Berg’s Four Songs (Op. 2) that turns grave. Goerne relishes the essay-like pieces that Wolf and Shostakovich adapted from texts by Michelangelo on the inevitability of death and the disgracefulness of an imperfect life, and he uses a luscious legato to navigate the channels of melody that Brahms carved into “Four Serious Songs.” Brighter colors emerge fleetingly — there’s a viola-like falsetto in the third Brahms song — but they are dogged by shadows.

“Lieder” is a heavy listen, but few artists are so temperamentally suited to this repertoire — and fewer still possess such a plush, darkly inviting voice. OUSSAMA ZAHR

Vadim Neselovskyi, piano (Sunnyside)

Vadim Neselovskyi, who was born in Odesa, Ukraine, was a classical prodigy in his youth, when his home country was still part of the Soviet Union. Now, he’s better known as a jazz pianist. You can hear both traditions all over his album-length tribute to his Odesa.

Neselovskyi has said that he considers Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” as a lodestar for this vibrant and surprising suite. As it happens, his writing proves plenty evocative (as in the delicate yet solemn movement “Winter in Odesa”). But you can tease out a wealth of other inputs, too. After a rumbling, brief introduction, the first full piece in the suite — “Odesa Railway Station” — progresses with piano syncopations redolent of silent film accompaniment. As the piece progresses, a jazzier, improvisatory quality comes to the fore.

But before Neselovskyi cuts loose, he takes care to depict each given scene or concept with a sure compositional hand. “Waltz of Odesa Conservatory,” dedicated to the school where Neselovskyi was once the youngest student in its history, moves between textbook-drilled courtly manners and flurries of extracurricular, individual explosiveness. And his “Potemkin Stairs” — an evocation of the famous “Odesa Steps” sequence form the Eisenstein film “Battleship Potemkin” — has a modernist momentum that honors the artistic source material. SETH COLTER WALLS

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