Tenors, Indie Sounds And Scarlatti: New Classical Albums

NOW Ensemble's new album Awake features five so-called indie classical composers. (New Amsterdam)

Dire predictions about classical music keep coming, and yet so do excellent recordings from all corners of the classical realm — a fact happily reflected in an eclectic mix of sounds that NPR Music's Tom Huizenga spins for Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. Judd Greenstein's music cheerfully percolates with well-blended flavors from many genres. He's among the so-called indie classical composers who also heads up his own ensemble and record label. Then there's the awesomeness of French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, whose new Scarlatti disc ranges from ravishing to rollicking. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann may be the opera geek's candidate for the next Placido Domingo; he's got matinee-idol looks and a rich, strong and charismatic voice to match. And finally, a forgotten Pole named Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, whose "Rebirth" symphony stands as dense and majestic as the composer's beloved Tatra Mountains.

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What is this music — classical, jazz, rock? I'm not sure we need to label it, but some would place this effervescent, genre-busting piece squarely in the indie classical camp. Judd Greenstein is a 31-year-old composer from New York and a mover in the burgeoning indie classical scene. He's among a new generation of versatile composers who have absorbed the last big movement, minimalism, and are adept at borrowing from a broad range of styles. Along with strings and winds, they mix electric guitars, drums and electronics in their music, feeling equally comfortable performing their own pieces in concert halls or rock and jazz venues. Greenstein also has an entrepreneurial spirit; he composes, heads NOW Ensemble and is the co-founder of what most people consider the top indie-classical label, New Amsterdam. (Check out this amazing video by Joshua Frankel set to Greenstein's song "Change.")

Sonata in E Major, K. 380

Tharaud is a fine Chopin player, but he clearly loves Baroque keyboard music. He's recorded albums of Bach, Rameau and Couperin, and now a disc filled with 18 sparkling Scarlatti sonatas. The music was written for harpsichord, but Tharaud — always musical, always thoughtful — brings out great coloristic effects. In this E Major sonata, one of the most loved of Scarlatti's 600 such works, Tharaud seems to conjure all the quaintness of little Spanish street bands. You can almost hear the trumpets, guitars and drums.

Un di all'azzurro spazio (from Andrea Chenier)

As Placido Domingo — still the reigning king of tenors — ages, it's good to know there are some younger men out there ready to fill his shoes. German tenor Jonas Kaufmann is an exciting singer whose star is rising rapidly. He's released a string of impressive CDs and earned raves for his stage appearances, most recently at the Met in New York. The audience and the critics fell in love with his truly heroic, muscular voice — not to mention his rugged good looks — in Wagner's Die Walküre. His new album is an all-Italian disc of verismo arias. In this flashy number from Andre Chenier, listen to the richness of the voice, its virile power, and its dark, burnished baritone colorings.

Karlowicz: Rebirth Symphony — finale

Karlowicz was a Polish composer and avid mountain climber who died in 1909 at age 32 in an avalanche in the Tatra Mountains. His music is rarely played outside Poland, but thanks to a few adventurous record labels (like Naxos) willing to step off the beaten path, he's having a slight rebirth now. Karlowicz was an important figure at a time when young Polish composers were exploring new ground in their music, blending modern and traditional styles. This music shows the influence of Karlowicz's idols — Wagner, Strauss and Tchaikovsky — but it also displays his own style as an especially deft orchestrator, especially with brass instruments. Hear how he builds the finale of his symphony here (about 8:30 into the movement) and listen for the return of the luminous brass chorale.


(Soundbite of song, "Change")

GUY RAZ, host:

You're hearing a piece simply titled "Change." It's from a new album by The Now Ensemble, and it's just one of dozens of interesting CDs that make it to my colleague Tom Huizenga's desk each month.

Tom is the classical editor for NPR Music and joins us on this program periodically to spin a few of the things that have been crossing his desk lately. Tom, it's great to see you again.

TOM HUIZENGA: Great to be back, Guy.

RAZ: This, what do we call this music? I mean, you're here, you know, reppin' classical, man. But there's a jazziness going on here, almost poppy.

HUIZENGA: Maybe that's just the point, really. I think that it's all those genres, maybe even a few more. I hear definitely some pop, perhaps a little hip-hop, a little Steve Reich maybe.

RAZ: I hear that. I hear that.

HUIZENGA: It's music by Judd Greenstein. He's a 31-year-old composer from New York, and you might say is an important person in the indie classical scene, if that's what we want to call it.

RAZ: Uh-oh, indie classical.

HUIZENGA: It's from this new record called "Awake," and there are five other young composers on it. And let's move just a little further down into the piece, where things get percolating, and the flute and the clarinet, they chase each other around.

(Soundbite of song, "Change")

RAZ: This is pretty groovy stuff, man.

HUIZENGA: I really like it. I love how the piece kind of builds and transforms. It's got a super-cheerful groove and all these interlocking parts. It's quite wonderful.

RAZ: Okay, so you did say indie classical. I did stop you for a moment. I got to ask you: What is indie classical?

HUIZENGA: Well, it's a term that's being tossed around a lot these days. I'm not sure I would call it a movement, but I think of it as a younger generation of these kind of genre-bending composers who have absorbed certainly the last big movement in music, minimalism, but they're very adept at borrowing all of these styles.

They include things like electric guitars, drums, electronics in their music. And not only that, they feel equally comfortable performing their own pieces in clubs or in, you know, traditional concert venues.

(Soundbite of song, "Change")

RAZ: Love it. Okay, what have you got next for us in your stack of CDs there?

HUIZENGA: Okay, something very different. Take a deep breath. Time to chill. This is just impossibly gorgeous keyboard music by Domenico Scarlatti, played by the French pianist Alexandre Tharaud.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: What can you say about that? That's beautiful.

HUIZENGA: Yeah, that's the opening of the Sonata in A major. And I love that calming heartbeat rhythm in the left hand.

Tharaud is a really great Chopin player, but he obviously loves his baroque keyboard music because he's recorded albums by Bach and Rameau and Couperin, all contemporaries of each other.

This new record is all Domenico Scarlatti, 18 sonatas in all.

RAZ: So, Scarlatti was also a contemporary of Bach's.

HUIZENGA: That's right, class of 1685, same year as Bach and Handel.

RAZ: And the pianist Tharaud, this is his period.

HUIZENGA: He specializes at this stuff. And of course, you know, Guy, all this music was written for the harpsichord. This predates our modern piano. But Tharaud brings out a lot of Scarlatti's great coloristic effects.

Let's move down into the CD and another track here. Check out this image he conjures up here, just like a little Spanish street procession. You can almost hear the trumpets and guitars and drums all on Tharaud's piano. This is Scarlatti's Sonata in E major, K 380.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: That's Alexandre Tharaud, with Scarlatti's Sonata in E major.

HUIZENGA: Yeah, that's good. That's shaping up to be one of my favorite albums so far this year.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Tom Huizenga. He's a classical editor for NPR Music. Tom, what else have you been listening to these days?

HUIZENGA: Well opera, of course. And there's a great new CD out by one of the more exciting opera singers today. He's from Germany. His name is Jonas Kaufmann.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JONAS KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language).

HUIZENGA: Kaufman's star is rising pretty fast these days. He's had a string of successful CDs and appearances most recently at the Met in New York. He was there just a few weeks ago singing in Wagner's "Die Walkure," and the audience and the critics like totally fell in love with his good looks and his heroic, muscular voice.

Just listen to the richness of Kaufman's voice. It's got all this power and kind of the darker, burnished colorings of a baritone.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KAUFMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

HUIZENGA: The new record that we're listening to is an all-Italian CD called "Verismo Arias."

RAZ: What's verismo?

HUIZENGA: It's kind of a musical movement that blossomed around the turn of the 20th century in Italy. And the music got bigger, it got bolder, it got more melodramatic.

The stories in verismo operas, they're all about the raw emotions of the common people. I mean, we're talking, like, busted-up lovers, murder, betrayal, you know, the usual stuff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: What's he singing about here?

HUIZENGA: This opera is set in the dark moments of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It's from the opera "Andre Chenier" by Giordano.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KAUFMANN: (Singing in foreign language).

RAZ: Amazing. That's an Aria from the opera "Andrea Chenier" that's sung by the tenor Jonas Kaufmann.

Tom, we have time unfortunately for just one more. Take us off the beaten path a little bit.

HUIZENGA: All right, we can handle that. Can you say Mieczyslaw Karlowicz?

RAZ: I don't think we're allowed to say that on the radio.

HUIZENGA: Well, it's a tough name, but he's a great composer.

(Soundbite of music)

HUIZENGA: Karlowicz was a polish composer. He was also an avid mountain climber. He died in 1909, when he was covered with an avalanche in his beloved Tatra Mountains. He was only 32. Karlowicz' music is rarely played outside of Poland, but thanks to a few adventurous CD labels willing to take a risk, he's making something of a resurgence these days.

RAZ: What is he known for? I mean, did he even have time to leave a legacy?

HUIZENGA: A little bit. I mean, he was a fairly important figure at a time when a generation of younger Polish composers were taking chances with blending modern and traditional styles together.

RAZ: Yeah.

HUIZENGA: But you'll hear some obvious influences here in this symphony, most notably Wagner, Richard Strauss, Tchaikovsky. But Karlowicz has his own style. Listen to how he builds the finale. We'll hear the finale of the symphony here, and there's a luminous brass chorale that's just great.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: Love those trombones.

HUIZENGA: Yeah, they're good, and this is a good performance from folks who really know how to play Karlwicz' music. It's the Warsaw Philharmonic with Polish conductor Antoni Wit.

RAZ: Definitely off the beaten path. Thank you for that. That's Tom Huizenga. He is a classical editor here at NPR Music. You can hear more from these selections at Tom's blog. It's called Deceptive Cadence. That's at Tom, thanks so much for dropping by.

HUIZENGA: Always a pleasure, Guy, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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