It may very well be that Fleming, one of the world's premiere operatic sopranos, really does enjoy the songs of Muse, Band of Horses, Willy Mason, Jefferson Airplane, Arcade Fire, the Mars Volta, Tears for Fears, Peter Gabriel, Duffy, Death Cab for Cutie, and Leonard Cohen and thus comes by her desire to cover them guilelessly. Chances are, however, she figured that if Susan Boyle could cover rock songs, so could she. But whereas for Boyle rock seems like an accomplishment, for Fleming it feels like slumming.
Karamazov, it may be argued, is to 21st-century lute music what Marvin Hamlisch was to 1970s ragtime: the most popular performer of such music and the only one people know (Hamlisch for "The Entertainer," Karamazov for accompanying Sting on John Dowland songs). Sting returns the favor on this album, but it's a low point, and good luck telling Renée Fleming's and Andreas Scholl's cameos apart. The eight on which nobody sings, however, are enchanting enough to function as gateway music for the lute fan just finding his feet.
Insofar as the works of serious composers constitute a "universe" of their own, the discovery of the piano music of Henri Dutilleux made possible by this album of performances by Robert Levin and (on Figures de résonances) Ya-Fei Chuang merits D'ombre et de silence a cover story in Astronomy magazine. And Levin's liner notes are as illuminating to the mind as his and Chuang's playing is to the ear. So crystalline is their precision and sure their touch that even the deliberately imitative "Homage à Bach" sparkles.
Although Richard Faith grew up when serialism was all the rage among composers, you'd never know it from his "Rhapsody for Flute and Piano" or the "Vivace" of his Fantasy Trio No. 1, which have more in common with Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy" and Jimmy Webb's "MacArthur Park" respectively than with anything by Schoenberg. In short, an example of the capacity to delight that serious composition might have developed had it managed to ride out the fads of rock 'n' roll on the one hand and avant-gardism on the other.
Of the various tributes that poured forth upon the American composer Elliott Carter's 100th birthday in 2008, none was more appropriate than Naxos records' releasing new recordings of Carter's String Quartets Nos. 1 and 5 by the Pacifica Quartet and Mosaic/Dialogues by Robert Aitken's New Music Concerts Ensemble. After a composer turns 100, of course, the only "big" occasion left is his death. When by 2009 Carter evinced undiminished vitality, Naxos issued String Quartets Nos. 2, 3 and 4 (also by the Pacifica Quartet) too.
Now, perhaps assuming he'll never die, Naxos has bundled all three albums into a boxed set. It's unlikely that anyone ready to come to grips with the demands made by Carter's tension-building compositions will find a more user-friendly introduction. "What I care about," Carter said in 2008, "is having performers who like my music and want to play it and play it well." In the Pacifica Quartet and Aitken's ensemble, Carter has gotten his wish.