Lucerne Symphony Orchestra; Paul Jacobs, organ; James Gaffigan, conductor (Harmonia Mundi)
How bold to title an album “Americans.” And what a lot to deliver on: a theme of near-infinite programming possibilities, and a concept under intense scrutiny these days, as classical musicians grapple with the United States’ history of exclusion in the concert hall.
It’s a little strange, then, that while some recent recording projects have focused on works by overlooked composers, this one has made space for two by Samuel Barber. Don’t let that be a deal-breaker, though. This album, by the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, conducted with a brilliant ear for detail and clarity by James Gaffigan, begins with a hard-edge take on Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story,” but gets better as it goes on, ending with two rare gems. Before those come Ives’s Third Symphony — the complexity behind its quilt of folk songs and dances here gently revealed — and Barber’s early Overture to “The School for Scandal.”
There’s a sudden departure in Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings, adapted from her String Quartet — composed at the beginning of the 1930s, like Barber’s overture, yet wholeheartedly modernist. It’s the high point of the album, attention-grabbing and prismatic, a slow burn of dense counterpoint. More disorienting still is a finale in the form of Barber’s “Toccata Festiva,” a concerto-like behemoth featuring an electrifying Paul Jacobs on organ. Together, these two pieces form a fantastic ending to a program that could have used more of their idiosyncratic spirit from the start. JOSHUA BARONE
Jihye Lee Orchestra (Motéma)
When Jihye Lee arrived at the Berklee College of Music in 2011, it was as a singer. But she also had the desire to write. She leapt at the chance to try jazz composition, even though she didn’t have a deep background in the genre.
She gained that background, quickly. And also quickly found a way to add her voice to the jazz lineage, releasing her debut album in 2017 and winning the BMI Foundation’s annual Charlie Parker Composition Prize in 2018. While Lee’s second album as a composer-bandleader, “Daring Mind,” is clearly inspired by other progressive big-band composers, like Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue (who produced this record), she has her own style. Her crisp arrangements balance frenetic virtuosity with an overarching reflective mood.
On “Relentless Mind,” traces of Minimalist ideas percolate, as melodic patterns expand and contract over swinging riffs. Yet that piece stops short of the nervy angst often associated with Minimalism. Lee shows no sign of tentativeness about taking her place in the tradition; the poised strut of “Daring Mind” is a reminder of a definition of jazz once offered by Wayne Shorter: “I dare you.” SETH COLTER WALLS
‘Fantasie Nègre: The Piano Music of Florence Price’
Samantha Ege, piano (Lorelt)
The Florence Price revival continues apace. In just the last few weeks, the Philadelphia Orchestra announced that it would record Price’s symphonies under Yannick Nézet-Séguin; the Kaleidoscope Chamber Collective released a gorgeous premiere recording of her Piano Quintet in A minor on Chandos; and the musicologists Douglas W. Shadle and Samantha Ege gave notice that they are writing a biography of this long-overlooked composer.
Much of this fresh prominence is because of the labors of a community of scholar-performers like Ege, nine-tenths of whose new album is based on manuscripts rescued from Price’s former summer home in 2009. There are intriguing miniatures here, including a suite of “Snapshots” written just before Price’s death, in 1953, but the focus is on four pieces named “Fantasie Nègre,” dating from 1929-33.
Loose sets of variations on spirituals and similar melodies set in Price’s late-Romantic language — one perfumed with pentatonic scales and enriched with a teeming sense of form — these are huge works. Especially the fourth, which Price at one point marked “Out of the Crucible” — a nod, Ege writes, to “her own triumphs over adversity.” Triumphs indeed, and if one can now imagine some of this music being performed with a dash more flair, that’s a testament to how Ege has brought this music to the life it more than deserves. DAVID ALLEN
Jean Rondeau, harpsichord and polygonal virginal (Erato)
As on his last album, “Barricades,” the harpsichordist Jean Rondeau lingers over the first notes of his new release, “Melancholy Grace,” like a roller coaster car slowing as it reaches the peak before its first plunge. And then he’s off — though this isn’t the headlong French Baroque dazzle of “Barricades,” but soulful, often sober Italian and English pieces of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The mood is melancholy, yes, but hardly oppressive; Rondeau’s touch and pace is so varied that even this program of broadly related works seems to span a whole universe of sound. Giving us an exceptionally generous 80 minutes of music, he alternates sets between a sumptuously metallic harpsichord and a 16th-century polygonal virginal, or arpicordo, which has both a smoother, milkier tone and a more pronounced clicking pluck. (It’s irresistible.)
Some of the composers are obscure, though you’ll remember Luigi Rossi after hearing the rich strum of the passacaglia featured here, and Antonio Valente for a gently sorrowful piece. Opening the recording with a Frescobaldi toccata, Rondeau places two more — the first imposingly grand, the second lush and lonely, a child playing in an empty castle — at its core. Melancholy does not just mean slow here; Rondeau unleashes burning fireworks in a feverish Giovanni Picchi dance, which he riffs on twice more over the course of this wonderful album. ZACHARY WOOLFE
‘Mozart Momentum: 1785’
Mahler Chamber Orchestra; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano and conductor (Sony Classical)
The superb pianist Leif Ove Andsnes views 1785 as a pivotal year in Mozart’s career, reflected especially in works for piano. To make his case, Andsnes has released an album focusing on that year — including three concertos performed with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, which he also conducts.
As Andsnes explains in the liner notes, he sees two seemingly contrasting concertos — the dark, turbulent No. 20 in D minor, and the sunny, serene No. 21 in C — as partners, both digging into the concerto genre and experimenting with the relations between soloist and orchestra. He plays both with elegance, clarity and attention to detail.
I was especially taken with his splendid account of the less-often-heard Concerto No. 22 in E flat. Andsnes takes a subdued, almost quizzical approach to the refined, intricate first movement, and makes every note matter in a sparkling performance of the animated finale. The album includes the Piano Quartet No. 1 in G minor (with three players from the Mahler orchestra), the “Masonic Funeral Music” and the Fantasia in C minor for solo piano — all played marvelously. ANTHONY TOMMASINI