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Four Classical Albums New In 2020 That Showcase Artists At Full Stride

Tyshawn Sorey, 2017 MacArthur Fellow, at Wesleyan University in Littletown, CT. on Sept. 21, 2017.
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
IPR's Barney Sherman has some recommendations for classical albums not to miss from so far in 2020. Tyshawn Sorey, who started his career as a jazz drummer, is pictured here.

Midway through 2020, here are four notable new releases exploring music outside the classical 'core repertory.'

Classical performers strode into 2020 in top form, then were sidelined by the pandemic. As we seek out these artists' YouTube and Facebook experiments and wait for whatever comes next, we have at least something that's arriving on schedule: recordings they made last year. These include terrific Bach, Beethoven, and Bruckner, which I’ll write about in a future post, but first I wanted to flag four releases from outside the so-called core repertory of Germanic composers. They include major new works by the young Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw and by Iowa native Michael Daugherty, plus an innovative recital from Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson and an even more innovative collaboration featuring a MacArthur Fellow who is hard to categorize:

'Invisible Rituals' by Tyshawn Sorey

Tyshawn Sorey began his career as a jazz drummer but won a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship for “assimilating and transforming ideas from a broad spectrum of musical idioms and defying distinctions between genres, composition, and improvisation.” That sentence is a mouthful, but you hear what it’s getting at in a new collaboration by Sorey (on drums and piano) with Jennifer Curtis on the violin. Curtis is a genre-buster herself, an award-winning classical violinist who has also drummed in a rock band and plucked mandolin in alternative-folk music. Their album is largely improvised but doesn’t sound like jazz, so yes, it defies distinctions, not to mention descriptions. I can’t think of a better one than the title they’ve given it, “Invisible Rituals.”

'Is A Rose' and 'The Listeners' composed by Caroline Shaw

Performed by Anne Sofie von Otter, Avery Amereau, Dashon Burton, and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale conducted by Nicholas McGegan

When Caroline Shaw completed her song-cycle “Is A Rose” last year, she couldn’t have known that in 2020 its subjects - love, loss and mortality - would feel unusually topical. Timeliness aside, I find it moving and beautiful. My response partly reflects the singer Shaw wrote it for, Anne Sofie von Otter, a great artist who is as fluent in pop, early music and cabaret as she is in opera and art song. Otter’s technique is transcendent, in that we don’t notice it and instead feel her unwavering humanity. The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, which commissioned Shaw to write these works for baroque instruments, sounds inspired, as does their conductor Nicholas McGegan. Special props to the oboist Marc Schachman, who plays the opening solo poetically.

But for an artist transcending considerable technique, we couldn't find a better example than Shaw. This young Pulitzer and Grammy winner was once called an “inventive collagist,” but that phrase doesn't do her justice. This work shows how her rich palate of allusions supports direct, heartfelt communication.

The album also includes Shaw’s first oratorio, "The Listeners." It contemplates the 1977 Voyager space probes and the “Golden Record” put onboard to give any aliens who find it a sense of our species' achievements. Shaw samples directly from that record, including the voices of its mastermind Carl Sagan. She also uses poems by Walt Whitman, Yesenia Montilla, Lucille Clifton and William Drummond. She makes expert use of the baroque orchestra and the exceptional singing of Dashon Burton, Avery Amereau and the Philharmonia Baroque Chorale. It’s an ambitious work, so it’s good to report that it achieves total lift-off. As with “Is A Rose,” the performances were recorded in concert, proving that these musicians are at the top of their games.

'This Land Sings: The Life And Times of Woody Guthrie' composed by Michael Daugherty

Performed by The Dogs of Desire conducted by Aaron David Miller, with Annika Socolovsky, soprano, and John Daugherty, baritone.

Cedar Rapids-born composer Michael Daugherty loves America like a gastronome loves local restaurants. Daugherty doesn’t taste the nation so much as binge on it, never losing his appetite for new cultural flavors as he explores more back roads. The resulting musical projects have won six Grammy awards. Their topics have ranged from American routes like Sunset Strip to American icons like Grant Wood, Jacqueline Onassis and Elvis Presley.

In "This Land Sings" Daugherty pays tribute to a more political American maverick, Woody Guthrie. The most famous melody by the Okie bard and activist shows up in the title and as the kernel of the short, engaging overture. But most of the music comes from Daugherty, who writes apposite new settings for lyrics by Guthrie and by Mark Twain, Carl Sandburg, James Oppenheim, Alfred Hayes and Daugherty himself. Daugherty also draws on folk songs Guthrie knew, like “Down in the Valley” with new words about the Dust Bowl, and “Joe Hill,“ with the text set to ghostly new music. Guthrie’s travels let Daugherty evoke sonic scenes from Michigan to Mermaid Avenue to the Mexican border.

Daugherty combines these flavors into a feast that feels integrated even without the Grand Ole Opry-style emcee that Daugherty created for concert performances. The music ranges from the touching to the delightful, and the performers get its styles perfectly. (That includes Daugherty himself in a harmonica solo in one number.) I was especially taken by the singing of John Daugherty and Annika Socolovsky, and by her description of her genre as “avant folk."

'Debussy-Rameau' by Vikingur Olafsson

The pandemic can undermine our sense of the daily flow of time, but this new album seems to take us out of time's flow altogether. In it, the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Olafsson creates an original sequence for keyboard miniatures by two French greats born almost two centuries apart.

Contrary to my headline, these composers are core to French music, but we might say they started their careers on its periphery. The earlier of them, Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), broke into the Parisian opera world only when he was 50, then dominated it until he was 80. The later composer, Claude Debussy (1862-1918), rebelled against his era’s Germanic musical center through a revolutionary exploration of sound. He admired Rameau and wrote a musical homage to him that is the seed of this recital.

Olafsson’s playing reveals each piece to be a gem, but his sequence lets each of them glow in a new way, and more than that, creates a cycle that feels like a work of art in itself. That's why the album is best heard complete, but if you want to sample it first, try the two transcriptions from vocal works - the mysterious prelude that Debussy transcribed from his "La Damoiselle Elue," and Olafsson’s own time-stopping transcription of a number from Rameau’s last opera, which the pianist calls "The Arts and the Hours." You can hear it in the video embedded above.

Barney Sherman is a Senior Music Producer and Classical Music Host