The once forgotten compositions of Julius Eastman (1940-90) are contours, as malleable as they are strong. You can do “Gay Guerrilla” with its original four pianos, or 11 electric guitars, or a varied quintet – and voice! Or something completely different. In the second in a series of Eastman recordings, the Los Angeles ensemble Wild Up emphasizes this flexibility, with two versions each of “Buddha” and “Touch Him When,” alongside “Joy Boy” and “Stay On It.”
“Buddha (Field)” is a grand unfolding 10-minute exhalation, with shadowy undercurrents and creeping tensions. Three minutes shorter, “Buddha (Path)” is a cry of terror at the beginning, gradually transitioning into sensual, erratic solos before ending in an ominous growl. The lost score, “Touch Him When” survived in a brooding recording for piano four hands. Transcribed here for guitar and performed by Jiji, the “Light” version is patient, sparing, and echoey; “Heavy” is blurry with distortion.
As in Wild Up’s recording of “Femenine,” which was released last year, the details – clicks of saxophone keys, breath through whistles – are clear, almost palpable, in “Joy Boy”. It’s nervous and energetically puffing, with a brass band feel and excited group chants of “yah, yah” (a tweak on the “nah” vocalization in the quieter live recording from 1974). An apt closer, “Stay On It” is a bright feast, oscillating between precision and luscious chaos. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Still: orchestral works
Zina Schiff, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Avlana Eisenberg, conductor (Naxos)
Even devoted fans of William Grant Still (1895-1978), once called the “Dean of African American Composers,” may be surprised to come across a new album made up entirely of world premiere recordings. How is that possible?
Rare arrangements offer an answer. For example, the three-part Violin Suite on this album, by the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Avlana Eisenberg, is the composer’s orchestral arrangement of his well-known Suite for violin and piano.
Hearing Still’s orchestrated version is no small feat. While performances of the first movement, “African Dancer,” trend as a duet toward flashy, virtuoso tempos, the full ensemble edition shines at a slower tempo. In the first minute you’ll find pulsating woodwinds, hints of muted brass swagger and fast percussive accents behind the soloist, Zina Schiff. Likewise, the California tribute “Pastorela” – previously recorded in a chamber version – takes on more power and drama in Still’s inviting and structured orchestral language.
The set sinks a bit in the middle, with a series of shorter, less memorable works. One is “American Suite,” which Still wrote as a student. But it can charm as a curiosity of a rapidly emerging talent. Later, mature pieces such as the “Serenade” and the “Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius” round off a pleasant program that should arouse more curiosity in this composer. SETH COLTER WALLS
Richard Strauss: Three Tone Poems
Cleveland Orchestra; Franz Welser-Möst, conductor (Cleveland Orchestra)
Last month, an anthology of Strauss’ orchestral works by Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony, and the Leipzig Gewandhaus on Deutsche Grammophon struck me as everything this composer shouldn’t be: bulky, slack, slack.
Now comes a breathtaking record, by Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra, that offers the opposite: an ensemble showcase, sure, but not only that. Like that of the composer, this is Strauss’ direction that puts drama at the center, ramps up the scores quickly and wrings them out tightly.
Surely few stories of “Macbeth”—never any of the canonical tone poems, probably for good reason—have been able to match the coherence and tragedy of this one. Could the “Don Juan” seduce more suggestively in his passions, or swagger with a little more character? Could the “Till Eulenspiegel” laugh a little more?
It might, and Welser-Möst’s approach might seem too dry to some compared to, say, Manfred Honeck’s with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra a decade ago, let alone George Szell’s with the Clevelanders long before that. But that’s the deal you make with Welser-Möst, a lack of self-esteem and playing with an untouched lightness of touch – the woodwinds here are nothing short of extraordinary – for one last palpitation, one last hair unattended on the back of the neck. Sometimes it’s a deal I like to take. DAVID ALLEN
BLKBOK, the artist alias of Charles Wilson III, calls his music neoclassical, but perhaps characteristically classical: classical playing in articulation, embellishment and style, but not classical in obligation. His music refers directly to great composers – this album winks at Rachmaninoff, Debussy and the waltz king Chopin – but characterizes the look and feel of the settings they contain differently.
This recent release – ‘Black Book DLUX’, an extension of BLKBOK’s debut album – features Lauren Delapenha’s poetry, spoken interludes that, intertwined with pianos, evoke dreams or memories transformed into unbearable realities. “(Poem) Cookie Waltz” recounts a Sunday afternoon dance between Wilson and his mother, who tells him that if he “danced really well, Mozart might show up.” Although this is the only song titled as a waltz, most of the album evokes the style. “I Made Her Breakfast” is looser than the dance with Cookie: melancholic, sometimes just a three-dimensional canvas for monochromatic painting.
Delapenha’s diction is sharp and cuts staccato phrases in “(Poem) The Hustle Is Real,” in which she recounts a chaotic day at the speed of Busta Rhymes, a childhood favorite of Wilson. The piano chases its words, not only with fast notes, but also with hasty embellishments around the five descending notes of a melody. The tempo eases to a moon-gazing silence: Bach in his left hand, Debussy in his right. DONNA LEE DAVIDSON
Verdi: ‘La Traviata’
Lisette Oropesa, soprano; René Barbera, tenor; Lester Lynch, baritone; Dresden Philharmonic; Saxon State Opera Chorus Dresden; Daniel Oren, conductor (Pentatone)
For her fourth — and unscheduled — encore at a recital in Italy last fall, Lisette Oropesa sang “Semper libera” from Verdi’s “La Traviata” — and an audience member brought up the short tenor part. Visibly elated, she improvised “Oh grazie!” in answer. The charming exchange was later seen by tens of thousands of people online.
This new studio recording of “La Traviata”, with Daniel Oren conducting the Dresden Philharmonic, and Oropesa with René Barbera (a plush Alfredo) and Lester Lynch (a wealthy Germont), has something of the spontaneity of that moment. There are bigger shots, but this one feels fresh – and no less moving for its human scale.
Oropesa makes for a delightful Violetta, with a fast, touching fragile vibrato and a jewel-like voice that catches light in beautiful ways. She can storm high D flats like a steely, love-avoiding courtesan in the first act, and bring a solo oboe to tears in “Addio del passato” in the third act.
Ears, more interested in small gestures than gleaming sound, opens the first scene with roaring brass and a breakneck tempo that sends the room spinning, a disaster for Verdi’s hard-partying semi-mundane. Unwritten flourishes – a crescendo here, some rubato there – add to the heady atmosphere.
Not every pick works, and there are occasional ensemble problems, especially in the chorus. But “La Traviata” rises or falls on the strength of its heroine, and it rises. OUSSAMA ZAHR