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Notable CDs

Notable CDs | Four recent classical releases

Issue: "The battle," March 24, 2012

Interplay Classical: The World of Robert Ackerman, Box 1

The "world" of Robert Ackerman? Listened to straight through, these three CDs feel more like a universe. Composing or performing (saxophone, clarinet, flute), Ackerman is equally at home in 12-tone experimentalism and jazz, stopping just short of making their mutual boundary seem arbitrary. He needs it, after all, to achieve the stunning effects he does while juxtaposing "South Carolina Sketches," "Visibility Zero," "Herb Fischer," and "Circling" in both styles. As for the eight "free improvisations" for bass, varying reed instruments, and occasional drums, they're exactly what they say.

Handel: Die Acht Grossen Suiten

To appreciate what Lisa Smirnova does and does not accomplish on this piano recording of Handel's eight harpsichord suites, listeners should compare and contrast it with a harpsichord recording of the same pieces, say Glenn Gould's. They'll be struck not only by the obvious differences-fluidity vs. aridity-but also by the ineffability of what such differences connote. It's more than epochs and less than worldviews, somewhat like comparing the old King James Version of the Bible (harpsichord) with the new. Something vital survives. Something almost vital doesn't.

Mad Rush: Solo Piano Works of Philip Glass

If, as reported, Beethoven once said that from Handel one could "learn how to achieve great effects by such simple means," then perhaps from Philip Glass one can learn how to achieve small effects by elaborate means. And if it's that very inefficiency-along with his repetitiveness, of course-that has always annoyed you about Glass, you'll be pleased to know that, shorn of their original, elaborately cacophonous settings, his piano works have the potential to induce a pleasantly meditative state by no means incompatible with Christian prayer.

The Guitarist

The classical guitar bridges the gap between the harp and the harpsichord, blending the former's mellifluous properties with the latter's plucked ones. And with it John Williams has spent decades bridging the gap between classical music and people who don't think they like it. Last year, to mark his 70th birthday, Sony Masterworks compiled this limited-edition anthology of 45 of Williams' most representative recordings. Serious composers predominate, but their nationalities vary, as do their genres (Morricone soundtrack, Joplin ragtime). And Williams bridges the gaps between those too.

Spotlight

Give the London Philharmonic Orchestra's The Greatest Video Game Music (X5 Music Group) several good listenings, and you'll be impressed by how little of it smacks of kitsch. Give it several more, however, and you'll notice how hard it is to give it several more. Background music by definition, its primary function is to recede upon impact and create the illusion of depth, often by a manipulation of the emotions so blatant that the music doing the manipulating becomes easy to ignore.

Sometimes, though, the absence of foregrounded video-game action reveals details. You can, for instance, in Garry Schyman's "The Ocean on His Shoulders" (from Bioshock) hear evidence of his love for the weightier Eastern-European music of the early- to mid-20th century. And on the lighter side, Koji Kondo and Mahito Yokota's "Theme" (Super Mario Bros.) and Ari Pulkkinen's "Main Theme" (Angry Birds) pick up where the cartoon-friendly music of the late Raymond Scott left off.

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