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Noteworthy CDs

Notable CDs | Five noteworthy new classical-music CDs reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

Classic American Love Songs

Style: Twenty-two Arlen, Gershwin, Weill, and Schwartz songs for operatic soprano and piano.

Worldview: "[I]n these songs there is never a direct reference to sex, and yet they make the most adult inferences [sic] to physical intimacy, in contrast to our present-day youth-oriented, anatomically obsessed rockers . . . and rappers" (the notes).

Overall quality: Cheers for the three previously unrecorded Weill songs; jeers for Farley's vibrato and the dim sound quality.

Mater

Style: Six-part cantata for ensembles of low-tuned, "period" instruments, soprano, and choir.

Worldview: "The protagonist is Woman-Mother who gives life (Magnificat), shapes (Lullabies), buries and mourns (Stabat Mater), and praises (Regina Coeli) . . . complemented by . . . the musings of an anonymous Jewish yeshiva student (Maykomashmalon) and the reflections of a modern-day intellectual (James Joyce's Ecce Puer)" (Godár's notes).

Overall quality: A reverently hypnotic blend of the traditional and the avant-garde.

Gimpel the Fool

Style: The English-language version of an originally Yiddish opera based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's best-known short story.

Worldview: That the "foolishness" of believing in everything may be wiser than the "wisdom" of relying on discernment rendered fallible by original sin.

Overall quality: Not bad for trying to spin gold (Singer's fiction) into more gold (Schiff's opera), with consistently sparkling performances from the Third Angle Ensemble and the four vocal soloists.

Howells: Hymnus Paradisi/Sir Patrick Spens

Style: One secular and six sacred polyphonic choral and orchestral works composed by Herbert Howells (1892-1983) between 1917 and 1938.

Worldview: That "[t]he sudden loss of an only son . . . might impel a composer . . . to seek release and consolation in a language and terms most personal to him. Music may well have power . . . to offer release and comfort. It did so in my case" (Howells).

Overall quality: Breathtaking.

Prestidigitations

Style: Contemporary concert rags for solo piano and ensemble.

Worldview: "[W]hen these two musical domains [concert works and rag-based pieces] intersect in my imagination, the manner of each mutually enriches the other, generating concert-framed works that tap into infectious 'ragged time' as deep-down, or overt, source" (Zaimont's notes).

Overall quality: An elegant, gorgeous, and revelatory demonstration of the possibilities latent in one of America's most venerated but stylistically underdeveloped forms.

Spotlight

Isaac Bashevis Singer's 1953 short story "Gimpel the Fool" has become a staple of English-literature anthologies, and deservingly so. Set in a Jewish village in Poland and populated with colorful minor characters, it tells the tale of a baker who, with tragi-comic consequences, believes everything he is told, no matter how absurd, lest he risk becoming skeptical to the point of someday not believing in God. It's easy to understand why David Schiff wanted to extend its appeal by transforming it into an opera.

What's less easily determined is whether Schiff's Gimpel the Fool (Naxos) will draw opera-lovers to Singer the way Singer has drawn literature-lovers to Schiff. True, skillfully wrought labors of love that remain faithful to the letter and the spirit of their sources are rare, and Schiff's Gimpel is definitely one of them. The unattractive possibility exists, however, that audiences unfamiliar with Singer will simply regard the opera as a more complex version of Fiddler on the Roof.

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