Michael Nicolella Push (Gale)
From the first driving notes of Roberto Sierra's Toccata y Lamento (1987), Seattle-based classical guitarist Michael Nicolella, a first-prize winner in several solo classic guitar competitions, impresses here with his virtuosic musicianship. Equally impressive is Nicolella's immensely challenging modern program for acoustic and electric guitar, which includes Piazzolla's captivating Primavera Portena (1970), Takemitsu's Equinox (1993), Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing (1967), John Fitz Rogers' Push (written for Nicolella in 1997), two of Nicolella's own compositions, plus works by Berio, Bryan Johanson, and Richard Kranjac. Nicolella's Bridges (1990) for flute, violin, guitar, and percussion is an especially wild and beautiful ride. When I shared Rogers' driving, mile-a-minute machine gun-like Push with an 8-year-old, she smilingly confided that it made her feel "like turning somersaults in my stomach." We then changed tracks to Berio's challenging Sequenza XI (1988), whose uncompromising atonal outbursts, punctuated by hard raps on the guitar's body, may remind you of neighbors banging on the door, shouting, "Turn down that infernal racket!" I told her that some might not consider it music at all. "Why?" she asked, puzzled. "It has rhythm, it has melody. Why would anyone say it's not music?"
Vivaldi's Four Seasons (times two)
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Sony); Giuliano Carmignola, baroque violin Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (EMI); Kyung Wha Chung, violin
Perhaps no other work, save for Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Bach's Brandenburgs, has introduced so many people to the wonders of classical music. Sony's zippy, period-instrument rendition features Giuliano Carmignola on baroque violin, with Andrea Marcon conducting the 15-member Venice Baroque Orchestra. Carmignola is a whiz, his winning tone and immaculate technique providing consistent enjoyment. Sonics, too, are beautifully clean and pristine, with the leaner sound, air between instruments, and delicate timbre of original instruments a delight. The vitality, freshness, and sheer beauty of this lively interpretation are mesmerizing. Kyung Wha Chung's modern- instrument rendition, by comparison, is accompanied by St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble. One of the great violinists of our time, Chung invests her playing with an irresistible care and warmth. Save for her "Autumn," which is over a minute faster than Carmignola's, most of her timings are at least 30 seconds slower than his. This makes for major interpretive differences in movements that only last two to four minutes. While Chung's more relaxed performance is less showy, it sounds so right to lovers of this very familiar music. The only disappointment is the unnecessarily overreverberant sound, which fills every inch of space, making St. Luke's Chamber Ensemble sound heavier than need be.
Commuter classics Drive Time P.M. (Dorian)
The Eternal Harp (Dorian)
With longer commute times translating into more hours stuck in vehicles, our only aural outlets have become cell phones, the radio, CDs and tapes, or screaming until we turn blue. Cell phones cost lives, and too many radio stations have become dull, basing their playlists on rating surveys rather than a desire for variety and exploration. This makes these two light-filled compilations welcome indeed. The Dorian label is known for crystal clear, sonically superb early music recordings that emphasize timbral variety and expansiveness—very different from your typical romantic excess or hackneyed baroque trio. Drive Time P.M. offers small ensemble instrumental and vocal selections. Tracks include lute and flute solos by Ronn McFarlane and Chris Norman; medieval Celtic music by the Altramar Medieval Music Ensemble; lovely selections by Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Lully, and Massenet; medieval Spanish music by Ensemble Alcatraz; and Bach played by guitar duo and famed ensemble Les Violins du Roy. The Eternal Harp, which includes vocals by Kitka, tenor Paul Rendall, and soprano Custer LaRue, offers an inviting variety of delicate European harp sounds and a mostly traditional, medieval, and Renaissance repertoire. While some of this music would be obliterated by noise coming through open windows, its pristine delicacy, ideally heard in an air- conditioned environment, is so fresh and winning that those who prefer to drive in sour moods will be forced to resort to 24-hour news stations to keep their realities intact.
Ian Bostridge, tenor Hans Werner Henze: Sechs Gesange aus dem Arabischen, Three Auden Songs (EMI); Julius Drake, piano
Lyric tenor Ian Bostridge's impeccably sung recording of two song collections by Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926), ably accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, offers music that is as troubling and probing as it is beautiful. Henze, among our most profound contemporary composers, frequently address the dark side of the human condition, including our frequently unspoken subconscious thoughts. The disc's main offering, Six Songs from the Arabian (Sechs Gesange aus dem Arabischen), was written specifically for Bostridge. Lyrics are mostly by Henze, including those for "The Praying Mantis," which concerns a female mantis who, after mating, eats her "husband." Henze explains that these songs are "not only peopled by pirates, sea monsters, and other monstrosities, but contain 'moments of beauty' in the form of love and love's pleasures, even if those pleasures are constantly marred by the ocean salt and spray." Also included are three settings of poems by W.H. Auden. The first is a memorial to a departed cat, the second describes Rimbaud, and the last is a moving love song. Henze's deeply personal, radical music is consistently absorbing and fascinating. You may not immediately understand all its layers of meaning, but careful listening will reveal its integrity. If you're willing to venture into areas of the forbidden, including those shadowy places within your own psyche, this music will draw you in.