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Pitch Perfect: 3 Must-Hear Vocal Albums

A late 15th-century icon of St. Sergius of Radonezh with the Saints of Rostov adorns the cover of a new album of Russian Orthodox Church music by the vocal ensemble Conspirare. (Harmonia Mundi)

The human voice, the true original instrument, is still the most expressive and personal of all. It's one reason more than 42.5 million Americans sing in choirs, and why we seem to be hardwired to tell our stories through song. It also probably explains why I'm a vocal music junkie, eagerly pawing over the operas, recitals and choir albums that land on my desk and in my download folder. Below are three recent releases well worth repeated listening — an evocative glimpse of traditional Russian Orthodox choral music, a blistering account of Beethoven's Solemn Mass and a perfectly ripened example of the kind of post-Romantic opera that blossomed in early 20th-century Vienna.

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John Eliot Gardiner conducts Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis'

Simply put, after listening to this performance of Beethoven's Solemn Mass, you don't exactly feel solemn. That's partly because the music brims with a searching, surging dramatic urgency, and partly because no recording of it blasts with as much ferocity and sheer excitement as this new one from conductor John Eliot Gardiner and company. The opening of the Gloria unleashes a tornado of sound from the orchestra and chorus, culminating on the word "omnipotens," marked triple forte, with trombones blaring and the astonishing Monteverdi Choir in full cry as if their lives (and their salvation) depended on it. Even in the quieter moments, Beethoven seems to explore rather than affirm faith. The somber prayer for peace at the opening of Gardiner's dimly lit Agnus Dei eventually falls to a military assault of drums and trumpets, as if Beethoven brought Napoleon's 1809 bombardment of Vienna directly into the score.

Conspirare: The Sacred Spirit of Russia

It's a long way from Texas to Mother Russia but director Craig Hella Johnson and his Austin-based choir Conspirare close the gap considerably with this impressive new album. The Sacred Spirit of Russia envelopes you in the haunting tradition of centuries-old a cappella Orthodox church music, an otherworldly combination of vocal colors and textures, with emotions ranging from solemnity (Alexander Kastalsky's "Today the Virgin") to euphoria (Alexander Gretchaninov's "Glory"). A high point in the album is Vladimir Martynov's ethereal Beatitudes, where sopranos and altos soar above a drone of humming. A low point, quite literally, is the extraordinary "Do Not Cast Me Off in My Old Age" by Pavel Tchesnokov. The soul of Russian Orthodox music lies in its bass singers, and Conspirare is blessed with a massive bottom end, anchored by the subterranean sounds of Glenn Miller, the group's resident basso profondo and soloist in this piece. His lowest notes are as much seismic rumbles as pitches.

James Conlon conducts Franz Schreker's 'Die Gezeichneten'

Sex, violence and physical deformity — now we're talking opera. Those are all in the gutsy mix that propels Franz Schreker's opulent Die Gezeichneten (The Stigmatized). A key figure in the wildly blossoming Viennese music scene at the dawn of the 20th century, Schreker remains unjustly neglected today. But not by conductor James Conlon, who's recorded two albums of Schreker's orchestral music, and now this opera, drawn from U.S. premiere performances he led in 2010 at the LA Opera. Robert Brubaker handles Schreker's punishingly high-flying tenor lines deftly, starring as a 16th century Genoese nobleman, a hunchback who attracts a beautiful painter, played with voluptuous restraint by soprano Anja Kampe. Their second act love duet, in which she captures his soul on canvas, is among the most ravishing stretches of operatic music — an intoxicating brew of fading Romanticism, impressionistic colorings and pungent harmonies. Conlon — who has also championed the music of Schreker's superb contemporary Alexander Zemlinsky — conducts the opera as if he'd written it.

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