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CD Reviews

Lush landscapes, majestic motifs, shifting strings

John Luther Adams, shown at a concert in New York, composed “Four Thousand Holes.’’ Boston-based pianist Stephen Drury will give its first performance on June 23 in Jordan Hall. John Luther Adams, shown at a concert in New York, composed “Four Thousand Holes.’’ Boston-based pianist Stephen Drury will give its first performance on June 23 in Jordan Hall. (Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times/File)
By Josh Shea
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2011

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FOUR THOUSAND HOLES John Luther Adams, composer (Cold Blue Music) There are at this moment, strange to say, two composers named John Adams writing significant contemporary classical music. John Coolidge Adams is much better known, as the composer of operas such as “Nixon in China’’ and “Doctor Atomic.’’ But the reputation of John Luther Adams has been building in recent years, as the lush, meditative music of this Alaska-based composer has begun traveling far from the western wilderness landscapes from which it draws its prime inspiration.

His recent piece, “Four Thousand Holes,’’ was in fact commissioned by the Boston-based pianist Stephen Drury, who will give its first performance on June 23 in Jordan Hall as part of this year’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice — better known by its nickname, “Sick Puppy.’’ In advance of that premiere the work has found its way onto a compelling new disc on the Cold Blue label, with Drury and percussionist Scott Deal. (Drury’s Callithumpian Consort takes on the disc’s second work “. . . and bells remembered . . .’’ from 2005.)

Despite a rather majestic climax, “Four Thousand Holes’’ unfolds at a measured pace, like a kind of contemplative walk in the woods in which the landscape changes slowly but dramatically over time. There is a spontaneous feel that belies the careful craftsmanship. Drury’s piano part is made up exclusively of chords based on major and minor triads, with Deal’s vibraphone and orchestra bells adding an extra sonic glitter. On top of it all, Adams generates a processed electronic “aura,’’ derived from the piano lines, and it spreads out like a canopy of sound: dense, rich, and enveloping.

DANIEL BARENBOIM PLAYS CHOPIN

The Warsaw Recital (Deutsche Grammophon) A remarkable thing happens at the end of this all-Chopin recital, given in Warsaw on the eve of the composer’s 200th birthday in February 2010. As an encore, Daniel Barenboim delivers a “Minute’’ Waltz in D flat major that is individual (note the articulated turns, or the sudden fortissimo in the middle), easy, and charming but with the right degree of masculine firmness. If there is a better version, by anyone, one hasn’t heard it.

The same can’t be said for other pieces in the program — although some are extremely lovely: the Barcarolle in F-sharp minor, the Berceuse in D-flat major, the Nocturne in D-flat major. In all of these, Barenboim seems to be relaxed and searching. The program consists of small jewels and two massive pieces, the Sonata in B-flat minor and the “Heroic’’ Polonaise. These last suffer, as almost anyone’s would, from comparison with Horowitz and Argerich (in the first case) and Rubinstein and Cziffra (in the second) — memories now reinforced with multiple performances on YouTube. It’s not that Barenboim fudges notes. He gets as high a percentage as anyone, and lands some spectacular chords at tricky moments. It would be hard to say, however, that he has a really persuasive Chopin style.

You know it when you hear it. There’s a singing line within the fabric of a piece and a sense (it seems to be instinctive with Eastern Europeans) of when to hold the tempo steady and when to relax, and by how much. Barenboim has a tendency to slow down (an expressive effect that also marks his conducting), and not always at the right moments. As a result, he lets the tension drain from many a phrase. Nor does he have Horowitz’s passionate sense of when to tease and when to throw you onto the bed. One might think that Chopin is just not in Barenboim’s blood — then comes that “Minute’’ waltz. Decca’s engineers capture the piano in lovely balance.

DAVID PERKINS

LISZT: HARMONIES DU SOIR

Nelson Freire, piano (Decca)

The Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire continues his celebration of the 19th-century masters for Decca with an all-Liszt CD. (It’s the bicentennial year of Liszt’s birth, so there will be more.) The selection includes familiar masterpieces (Ballade No. 2, Valse oubliée in F-sharp major, the Sonetto 104 del Petrarca), a few lesser known gems (“Waldesrauschen,’’ the Six Consolations), and none of the tedious mechanical marathons (“St. François de Paule marchant sur les flots,’’ “Csardas macabre’’). In everything Freire exudes a patrician ease. He does not use tricks — doubling octaves, for example, or racing the tempo — to take the breath away, as many famous Liszt interpreters do (Horowitz, Jorge Bolet, Lazar Berman, Martha Argerich). Freire doesn’t have that kind of technique, or temperament.

On the other hand, what he does is so beautiful, he seems the return of some great master, someone like Josef Hoffman, in how he combines an exquisite touch — every note is a drop of gold — with great discipline and muscular solidity. The biggest pieces are generally less interesting than the intimate ones, perhaps because they are shallower, and really need showmanship. For the Ballade, or the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 3, one does better to turn to Evgeny Kissin, or the emerging superstar Lise de la Salle. But Freire, who is 66, has a ripened wisdom, and one looks forward to his next venture as to few others’. Will it be Beethoven’s late Sonatas? Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit’’? Or the Goldberg Variations? The range of questions says it all.

DAVID PERKINS

CONCORD CHAMBER MUSIC SOCIETY

Music by Chris Brubeck, Michael Gandolfi, and Lukas Foss (Reference Recordings)

In its first CD, the Concord Chamber Music Society, a fine group of Boston Symphony musicians (launched and directed by violinist Wendy Putnam), has enshrined pieces by three composers that have appeared on recent programs. All three composers have ties to the Boston area; two of the works (Chris Brubeck and Michael Gandolfi) were commissioned by the society; all have folk elements that make them appealing and accessible.

Brubeck’s “Danza del Soul’’ (2006) is a 30-minute piece with an intriguing idea for a first movement — a sort of Haydn “Farewell’’ symphony in reverse. The clarinet begins with a lovely series of tonal riffs (it might be a French piece by Tournier or Bozza), and is then joined by a violin playing at a distance that sounds like a Sephardic or Middle Eastern muezzin call. After a sustained duet, a cello joins, then bass and percussion, and finally a piano.

Alas, the later transitions are not as arresting as the first, and the music doesn’t (unlike, say, Ravel’s Bolero) become more exciting or more clearly focused with each addition. Later bright episodes of Spanish music and Klezmer only make you wish he had decided on something — perhaps an East-West dialogue. The later movements are more tightly made, in a familiar style of light classical jazz (yes, the composer’s father is that Brubeck).

Lukas Foss’s “Central Park Reel’’ (1987) is a 10-minute bluegrass dance for violin and piano that lacks variety to sustain interest after the first two minutes. Curiosity revives toward the end, when a second violin line is overdubbed (an option Foss suggested), and what began in Kentucky ends up in loud, noisy Manhattan. (If only he’d stopped off in Chicago’s South Side and picked up some jazz on the way.) Best of all is Gandolfi’s “Line Drawings,’’ a 2009 commission that consists of five short pieces for violin, clarinet, and piano. Inspired by Picasso’s drawings, Gandolfi set himself the task of writing quickly and spontaneously (as Picasso drew), and the results are highly enjoyable and playful.

The ensemble is consistently excellent, and the musicians switch into jazzy and bluegrass passages without any Symphony Hall stiffness. The San Francisco label, Reference, has captured a clear sound in Worcester’s famous Mechanics Hall. At times the miking is a bit too close for comfort. DAVID PERKINS

NOW ENSEMBLE: “AWAKE’’

(New Amsterdam)

It’s been a long time since a new piece grabbed my attention as immediately and held it as tightly as Judd Greenstein’s “Change.’’ This kaleidoscopic chamber work leads off “Awake,’’ a new CD by Now Ensemble, a crack new-music ensemble of which Greenstein is a cofounder. “Change’’ begins with a jumpy motif, reminiscent of early minimalism, which rotates through winds and piano. That music quickly grows in color and complexity, but shades of that opening motif pop up throughout the piece.

Some of its best moments involve Greenstein’s powerful, groove-based writing for piano and guitar; over a repeating chord pattern he spins melodies that have an almost improvisatory sense of freedom. In those moments you could imagine the music jamming out for much longer than the work’s 13 1/2 minutes.

Five more compositions are on “Awake,’’ and though none is as exciting as “Change,’’ they all make for involving listening. Both Sean Friar’s “Velvet Hammer’’ and Mizzy Mazzoli’s “Magic With Everyday Objects’’ veer precipitously between gentle melody and bursts of distorted guitar. “Burst’’ by Mark Dancigers (Now Ensemble’s guitarist) has a playful sense of swing, while David Crowell’s “Waiting in the Rain for Snow’’ is notable for its crystalline sonic beauty.

The title track, “Awake,’’ is a poignant, slowly unfurling work by Patrick Burke, another Now cofounder.

It’s tough to shoehorn the music on “Awake’’ into traditional categories, but it doesn’t matter: Here is an album that offers a lot of engaging new music, as well as one piece I am sorely tempted to call a masterpiece.

DAVID WEININGER

JEFFERSON FRIEDMAN, STRING QUARTETS NOS. 2 & 3

Chiara String Quartet (New Amsterdam)

It’s rare to see an ensemble commit so strongly to a young composer that they devote an entire CD to his or her music. Yet the Chiara String Quartet — in residence at Harvard University — commissioned both of these string quartets by Jefferson Friedman, and a listen to this superb CD quickly reveals why.

Friedman, a 36-year-old Swampscott native, seems to have mastered all the elements of quartet writing. The Second (1999) begins with furious energy before settling into a slow movement that ranks on a par with Debussy for its rapt, introspective beauty. The finale has hints of Bartok and Shostakovich, though all filtered through Friedman’s unmistakably original voice.

The Third Quartet (2005) opens with a brief, unsettling introduction and proceeds to a middle movement of astonishing imaginative breadth: Here is a sequence of shifting moods, textures, and rhythms, all knitted together by the composer’s sure grasp of large-scale form. The third movement, “Epilogue/Lullaby’’ (dedicated to the daughter of Chiara first violinist Rebecca Fischer), is slow and luxuriant, though hints of darkness emerge fitfully throughout.

The CD includes remixes of music from the quartets by the electronica duo Matmos, but Friedman’s originals are the real attraction. DAVID WEININGER