The once-forgotten compositions of Julius Eastman (1940-90) are outlines, as malleable as they are strong. You can do “Gay Guerrilla” with its original four pianos, or 11 electric guitars, or a varied quintet — and voice! Or something entirely different. In the second in a series of Eastman recordings, the Los Angeles ensemble Wild Up emphasizes this flexibility, including two versions each of “Buddha” and “Touch Him When,” alongside “Joy Boy” and “Stay On It.”
“Buddha (Field)” is a grandly unfolding 10-minute exhalation, with shadowy undercurrents and creeping tensions. Three minutes shorter, “Buddha (Path)” is a shriek of terror at the start, gradually settling into sensual, curlicue solos before ending in an ominous growl. Its score lost, “Touch Him When” survived in a brooding recording for piano four hands. Here transcribed for guitar and performed by Jiji, the “Light” version is patient, spare and echoey; “Heavy” is blurry with distortion.
As in Wild Up’s recording of “Femenine,” released last year, the details — clicks of saxophone keys, breath through flutes — are clear, almost tactile, in “Joy Boy.” It’s jittery and energetically chugging, with a fanfare feel and excited group chants of “yah, yah” (a tweak on the “nah” vocalizing in the quieter 1974 live recording). An apt closer, “Stay On It” is a bright party, veering between precision and lush chaos. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Still: Orchestral Works
Zina Schiff, violin; Royal Scottish National Orchestra; Avlana Eisenberg, conductor (Naxos)
Even devoted fans of William Grant Still (1895-1978), once referred to as the “Dean of Afro-American composers,” might be surprised to come across a new album consisting entirely of world premiere recordings. How is that still possible?
Rare arrangements provide an answer. For example, the three-movement Violin Suite on this album, by the Scottish National Orchestra under Avlana Eisenberg, is the composer’s orchestral adaptation of his familiar Suite for Violin and Piano.
Hearing Still’s orchestrated version is no small thing. Whereas performances of the first movement, “African Dancer,” trend as a duet toward flashy, virtuoso tempos, the edition for full ensemble dazzles at a slower pace. In the first minute here, you’ll find pulsing woodwinds, touches of muted-brass swagger and quick percussive accents behind the soloist, Zina Schiff. Likewise, the California tribute “Pastorela” — previously recorded in a chamber version — takes on greater heft and drama in Still’s inviting and textured orchestral language.
The set sags a bit in the middle, with a string of shorter, less memorable works. One of these is “American Suite,” which Still wrote as a student. But it can charm as a curio from a fast-emerging talent. Later, mature pieces like the “Serenade” and the “Threnody: In Memory of Jean Sibelius” round out an enjoyable program that ought to spark more curiosity in this composer. SETH COLTER WALLS
Richard Strauss: Three Tone Poems
Cleveland Orchestra; Franz Welser-Möst, conductor (Cleveland Orchestra)
Last month, an anthology of Strauss’s orchestral works from Andris Nelsons, the Boston Symphony and the Leipzig Gewandhaus on Deutsche Grammophon struck me as everything this composer should not be: ponderous, slack, flabby.
Now comes a breathtaking record, from Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra, that offers the complete opposite: an ensemble showcase, to be sure, but not that alone. Much like the composer’s own, this is Strauss conducting that puts drama at its core, driving scores on quickly, wringing them out tight.
Surely few accounts of “Macbeth” — never one of the canonical tone poems, probably for good reason — have matched the coherence and the tragedy of this one. Could the “Don Juan” seduce more evocatively in its passions, or swagger with a little more character? Could the “Till Eulenspiegel” play for laughs a touch more?
They could, and Welser-Möst’s approach might strike some as too dry compared to, say, that of Manfred Honeck’s with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra a decade ago, let alone George Szell’s with the Clevelanders long before. But that is the bargain you make with Welser-Möst, trading a lack of self-regard and playing with a pristine lightness of touch — the woodwinds here are downright extraordinary — for a last palpitation of the heart, a last hair unattended on the back of the neck. Sometimes, it’s a deal I’ll willingly take. DAVID ALLEN
BLKBOK, the artist alias of Charles Wilson III, calls his music Neo-Classical, but maybe call it characteristic classical: classical playing in articulation, embellishments and style, but not classical in obligation. His music points directly to great composers — this album nods to Rachmaninoff, Debussy and the waltz king, Chopin — but characterizes differently the look and feel of the institutions that contain them.
This recent release — “Black Book DLUX,” an expansion of BLKBOK’s debut album — features poetry by Lauren Delapenha, spoken interludes that, woven with pianos, evoke dreams or memories turned into hard-to-bear realities. “(Poem) Cookie Waltz” narrates a Sunday afternoon dance between Wilson and his mother, who tells him that if he “danced real good, Mozart might show up.” Although this is the only track titled as a waltz, most of the album evokes the style. “I Made Her Breakfast” is looser than the dance with Cookie: melancholic, sometimes merely a triple-metered canvas for monochromatic painting.
Delapenha’s diction has sharp edges, cutting staccato phrases in “(Poem) The Hustle Is Real,” in which she narrates a chaotic day with the speed of Busta Rhymes, a childhood favorite of Wilson’s. The piano chases her words, not just with fast notes, but also with scurrying embellishments surrounding a melody’s five descending notes. The pace eases into a moon-gazing stillness: Bach in his left hand, Debussy in his right. DONNA LEE DAVIDSON
Verdi: ‘La Traviata’
Lisette Oropesa, soprano; René Barbera, tenor; Lester Lynch, baritone; Dresden Philharmonic; Saxon State Opera Chorus Dresden; Daniel Oren, conductor (Pentatone)
For her fourth — and unplanned — encore at a recital in Italy last fall, Lisette Oropesa sang “Sempre libera” from Verdi’s “La Traviata” — and an audience member piped up with the brief tenor part. Visibly delighted, she improvised “Oh grazie!” in reply. The charming exchange was later seen by tens of thousands of people online.
This new studio recording of “La Traviata,” with Daniel Oren conducting the Dresden Philharmonic, and featuring Oropesa with René Barbera (a plush Alfredo) and Lester Lynch (a rich-toned Germont), has something of that moment’s spontaneity. There are grander recordings, but this one feels fresh — and no less moving for its human scale.
Oropesa makes for a lovely Violetta, with a quick, touchingly fragile vibrato and a jewel-like voice that catches light in beautiful ways. She can dash off high D flats as a steely, love-averse courtesan in Act I, and move a solo oboe to tears in “Addio del passato” come Act III.
Oren, more interested in small gestures than gleaming sound, begins the first scene with bumptious brasses and a breakneck tempo that make the room spin, spelling disaster for Verdi’s hard-partying demimondaine. Unwritten flourishes — a crescendo here, some rubato there — add to the impetuous atmosphere.
Not every choice works, and there are occasional ensemble issues, most noticeably in the chorus. But “La Traviata” rises or falls on the strength of its heroine, and this one soars. OUSSAMA ZAHR