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CLASSICAL NOTES

Highlights from a year of local listening

8 notable recordings by area artists, composers, and ensembles

Justin Dello Joio’s “Oceans Apart” (Bridge Records).Bridge Records

Reflecting back on the year about to end, the final Classical Notes column of 2023 brings together eight notable recordings by local artists, composers, and ensembles.

One of the first musical events of the year was the premiere of Justin Dello Joio’s piano concerto “Oceans Apart” by pianist Garrick Ohlsson and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under conductor Alan Gilbert. A live recording drawn from those concerts (Bridge) reveals a keen ear for unusual instrumental sonorities and a fascinating juxtaposition of grand, sweeping rhetoric (especially in the piano writing) and a highly chromatic musical language. In stretches the two forces seem to work in tandem, but much of the time they seem pitched against one another, deftly capturing the image referred to in the composer’s note of a surfer dwarfed by immense waves. Ohlsson’s performance of this demanding score is nothing short of heroic.

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Joan Tower’s “Piano Concerto - Homage to Beethoven” (BMOP Sound).BMOP Sound

“The minute I started the ‘Piano Concerto,’ Beethoven walked in the room,” Joan Tower wrote about her single-movement work for piano and orchestra. “I asked him politely to leave — which he refused to do.” Her concerto’s rhythmic energy and dramatic scaling are, indeed, quite Beethovenian, and there are oblique references to three of the older composer’s works in Tower’s score. Marc-André Hamelin, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, and conductor Gil Rose give a dashing performance on this release (BMOP/sound), which also includes three other Tower concertos. Of those, “Red Maple,” for bassoon and strings, shows how delicate and imaginative Tower’s textural palette can be.

Eric Nathan’s “Some Favored Nook” (New Focus Recordings).New Focus Recordings

Rather than corral a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry for yet another song cycle, Eric Nathan, a composer at Brown University, has crafted something more unusual and engaging: a 50-minute vocal work based not only on her poetry but on correspondence with abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson (New Focus Recordings). The libretto reaches beyond their friendship to illuminate ideas of freedom and division in Civil War America. Nathan’s music — for soprano Tony Arnold, baritone William Sharp, and pianist Seth Knopp — is quietly compelling, attuned to the themes in the text yet restrained enough to let the words take center stage.

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Awadagin Pratt’s “Stillpoint” (New Amsterdam Records).New Amsterdam Records

Trust the intrepid Boston string orchestra A Far Cry to be among pianist Awadagin Pratt’s collaborators on his fascinating and ambitious project “Stillpoint” (New Amsterdam). Inspired by lines from T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the album gathers six newly commissioned pieces for combinations of piano, strings, and voices (the equally adventurous ensemble Roomful of Teeth). They sit beside one another in fascinating ways — the haunting melancholy of Peteris Vasks’s “Castillo Interior” leading to the chromatic atmospherics of Tyshawn Sorey’s “Untitled Composition for Piano and Eight Voices,” and finally to Judd Greenstein’s pulsing, valedictory “Still Point.”

Academy of Ancient Music’s “Mozart: Piano Concertos" (AAM Records).AAM Records

A new entry in a cycle-in-progress of the Mozart piano concertos by Robert Levin, one of the preeminent living Mozart scholars and performers, offers two delightful concertos for two fortepianos (Nos. 7 and 10), both played by Levin and Ya-Fei Chuang (Academy of Ancient Music). No. 10 is the better known — and has a sublime slow movement — but the less familiar No. 7 almost steals the show with its charm, sparkling passagework, and give and take between the soloists’ parts. Also included: a fragment of a concerto for fortepiano and violin concerto, in a completion by Levin. The AAM and conductor Laurence Cummings offer alert, sympathetic accompaniment; the AAM’s leader, Bojan Čičić, is the soloist in the concerto fragment.

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Takuma Itoh’s “Wavelengths” (Hub New Music).Hub New Music

Hub New Music is known for deep engagement with the composers whom they commission, often performing new works many times across seasons. That was particularly important to the composer Takuma Itoh, who wanted to create a piece that could sound radically different from one rendition to the next. Thus, “Wavelengths” (no label/Bandcamp), in which different instrumental parts play at different speeds, and the tempos can be changed from performance to performance. Even with its aleatoric nature, the version released here sounds well-coordinated and has an irresistible momentum to it.

Thomas Adès's “Alchymia” (Orchid Classics).Orchid Classics

Thomas Adès may have completed his stint as the BSO’s artistic partner, but he remains, thankfully, a regular guest with the orchestra. His big release this year was an enormous ballet score on Dante’s “Divine Comedy”; on a smaller scale but equally engrossing is the 20-minute clarinet quintet “Alchymia,” played here by the Diotima Quartet and clarinetist Mark Simpson (Orchid Classics). Each movement of the piece treats a different notion of transformation arising from the Elizabethan age. But this is no pastiche of the past; rather, it’s a quietly complex and highly fruitful meeting of history and modernity. It’s also one the most substantial works of chamber music to emerge from Adès in at least a decade.

Yo-Yo Ma’s “J.S. Bach 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello”.(Sony Classical).Sony Classical

What would a local end-of-the-year list be without an entry from Yo-Yo Ma? This year is the 40th anniversary of Ma’s first recording of the Bach cello suites, which Sony has marked with a vinyl reissue of the set. This is music with which Ma has become inextricably identified in the intervening years, and if a later traversal (from 2018) reveals greater depth of emotion, there is plenty to admire in the dramatic brilliance on display in 1983. Listen to the swashbuckling virtuosity with which he launches the Sixth Suite — it sounds just as breathtaking as it was back then.

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