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Noteworthy CDs

Notable CDs | Five noteworthy new or recent classical releases reviewed by Arsenio Orteza

William Bolcom: Works for Violin and Piano

Style: The eclectic American composer's second (1978), third (1992), and fourth (1994) violin-and-piano sonatas.

Worldview: That the music emerging from a country as vast and complex as America must itself suggest vastness and complexity.

Overall quality: The skeletal transparency of these works offers those who became acquainted with Bolcom via his ambitious (and ungainly) Songs of Innocence and of Experience easier access to the pleasures of his aesthetic.

Three Centuries for Four Brass

Style: Brass compositions from the French Renaissance (Gervaise), the Italian Renaissance (Gabrieli), 18th-century Russia (Anton Simon), and 20th-century America (Bruce Adolphe, Alan Hohvaness, Robert Starer).

Worldview: "This recording explores little-known treasures of the brass repertoire . . . [and] the important contemporary pieces that were commissioned and premiered by the Metropolitan Brass Quartet" (the notes).

Overall quality: Originally released 25 years ago, this recording remains as gorgeous as it is revelatory.

Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake

Style: Solo piano renditions by the host of NPR's From the Top of 14 songs by the late British folksinger Nick Drake.

Worldview: That Drake's acoustic-guitar-based melodies contain affinities with Baroque music (O'Riley's liner notes cite Bach and Couperin) that make them ripe for performance on a well-tempered clavier.

Overall quality: More likely to interest O'Riley's classical-music fans in Drake than to interest Drake's folk-music fans in O'Riley.

Folk Songs

Style: Twenty mostly traditional Norwegian ballads, hymns, and lullabies arranged for a cappella female trio and occasional percussion.

Worldview: That those who commit themselves to perpetuating worthwhile traditions are in turn enriched by them.

Overall quality: The vibrato-free voices of Anna Marie Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and Torunn Østrem Ossum blending in an Austrian monastery imbue even the most secular of these pieces with an otherworldly power, mystery, and majesty.

Bridge: Piano Music 2

Style: Seven piano works by the British composer Frank Bridge from 1902, 1903, 1906, and the years of, or just following, World War I.

Worldview: "[Bridge's] response to the war seems to have triggered a stylistic crisis in his music and a need to develop a more radical harmonic voice" (the liner notes).

Overall quality: Controversial during their time, Bridge's compositions retain a hauntingly expressive and deeply moving poignancy.


There are good reasons not to trust whatever positive reactions one may have to Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake (World Village), Christopher O'Riley's latest piano treatment of a beloved pop oeuvre. Although as an accomplished performer of the Romantic repertoire (Rachmaninoff, Debussy) and the host of an NPR classical-music program he should be able to write decent prose, his liner notes consist mainly of juvenile gaffes ("utterly unique," "masterful" for "masterly"), florid overwriting ("The songs of Nick Drake continue to radiate their life-giving, though cautionary, force like a sudden flush of migrating birds"), and boilerplate sentimentalism.

As the most distinguishing and appealing quality of Drake's jazzy folk was his smoky voice, the very idea of performing his songs without vocals seems misbegotten. That O'Riley's recognizably faithful renditions often "work" anyway doesn't mean he'll teach Drake fans something they don't already know.


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