Recordings of Brahms, Haydn, Grieg, Nikolai Kapustin and George Walker are among recent highlights.
‘Blueprint’: Piano Music by Nikolai Kapustin for Jazz Trio
Frank Dupree, piano; Jakob Krupp, bass; Obi Jenne, drums (Capriccio)
When I reported last year on the pianist Frank Dupree’s first album of works by Nikolai Kapustin, Dupree previewed things to come. For his follow-up engagement with Kapustin, a swing-influenced Russian composer, Dupree said he would release a series of solo piano works played by a traditional jazz trio.
Now that the results are out, the wisdom of the idea is evident. Dupree could have recorded an enjoyable solo set, as his feel for Kapustin is as fluid as ever. But we currently have no lack of one-player recitals of this music — including from Marc-André Hamelin, Steven Osborne and Kapustin himself.
The improvised element on “Blueprint” is subtle. Dupree plays the piano solos as they were notated, and the bassist Jakob Krupp follows his left hand. The album’s distinguishing element of improvisation is left to the percussionist Obi Jenne. And it’s his interventions that truly elevate this set. In a piece like the Op. 41 Variations, Kapustin moves briskly between different syncopated styles; Jenne’s mutable beat-juggling highlights each change. Perhaps not every item here needed the jazz combo treatment. But when the arrangements work — as on selections from the Eight Concert Études — this trio adds to the material a new jolt. SETH COLTER WALLS
Brahms: Late Piano Works
Paul Lewis, piano (Harmonia Mundi)
To listen to the pianist Paul Lewis’s new album of late Brahms, you would think these pieces had been written just after the last sonatas of Schubert, which Lewis has recorded with wrenching restraint. Splicing the gap between 1828 and the early 1890s, Lewis’s is a vision of Brahms as fully Classicist; these final four sets of solos are rendered with judicious tempos and a clean, calm touch — intelligent, sensitive readings.
The pearly moderation that makes Lewis’s Schubert so movingly humble sometimes keeps his Brahms shy of grandeur and especially mystery. These are tender, affecting interpretations more than pensive, let alone unsettling, ones; Lewis sometimes stints the softest dynamics, giving a slight sense of straightforwardness when you want intimations (at least) of the epic. The Intermezzo in E flat (Op. 117, No. 1) doesn’t seem to lose itself in the middle section — as it does in Radu Lupu’s benchmark 1987 recording — so the return to the theme is less than overwhelming.
But a cleareyed Intermezzo in A (Op. 118, No. 2) is deeply satisfying; the Intermezzo in E Minor (Op. 119, No. 2) leavens lucidity with dreaminess. And Lewis’s sparkle in the middle of the Romanze in F (Op. 118, No. 5) gives the shift back to sober feeling at the end quietly immense power. ZACHARY WOOLFE
Lise Davidsen, soprano; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano (Decca)
The recording industry has finally found a way to capture Lise Davidsen. A luminous soprano of remarkable range, equally capable of floodlight power and the piercing smallness of a laser pointer, she wasn’t well represented on her first two albums for Decca, which were documents of sensitive and intelligent interpretation more than versatility or resounding might.
Now, after programs of Wagner, Strauss, Beethoven and Verdi, comes a much more intimate album of Grieg songs performed with the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes — a pairing of two excellent Norwegian musicians in works by their country’s most treasured composer. The scale of this program is better suited than Davidsen’s earlier albums at conveying the dexterity of her voice, and her gift for endearing levity; there are playful turns of phrase here that you just don’t get in “Tannhäuser.”
Throughout the album — which begins with the eight-song cycle “The Mountain Maid” and continues with excerpts from other collections — Andsnes is an evocative tone painter, with dreamy glissandos in “Singing,” galloping festivity in “Midsummer Eve” and flowing momentum in “A Boat on the Waves Is Rocking.” And Davidsen is a nimble raconteur, lovingly warm in the opening cycle’s “Meeting,” then shattering in its Schubertian finale, “At the Gjaetle Brook,” and later bringing both folk lightness and Wagnerian heft to the six songs of Op. 48. To the credit of Grieg and these artists, you’ll never be so moved by a song called “Snail, Snail!” JOSHUA BARONE
Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Neville Marriner, conductor (Eloquence)
It’s easy now to be a little sniffy about Neville Marriner’s achievements with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a partnership renowned as the most recorded in history. With the success of the period-instrument movement, their hundreds of recordings on modern instruments have gained the reputation of being a bit staid — practical and reliable, to be sure, but nevertheless dusty relics of an era best forgotten.
But this thoroughly enjoyable 15-disc set — which for the first time brings together 33 Haydn symphonies set down between 1970 and 1990 — is ample reminder that there were perfectly good artistic reasons Marriner and his chamber-orchestra forces were such a roaring commercial success.
Conceiving their work initially as a crisp, stylish rejoinder to an older, stouter approach to the Baroque and Classical repertoire, they played this music with insatiable collective commitment — the slow movements singing gracefully, the outer movements sparkling in their drive and invention. If there is a little more zest in their accounts of Haydn’s earlier symphonies than his later ones, they are all brilliantly well judged, and full of life. DAVID ALLEN
George Walker: Piano Sonatas
Steven Beck, piano (Bridge)
In 2018, when the composer and pianist George Walker died at 96, there were plenty of accomplishments to memorialize, including his Pulitzer Prize — the first awarded to a Black composer. But there was also a dispiriting acknowledgment of a missed opportunity, given that so few elite classical institutions had seriously engaged with Walker’s work while he was alive.
The inattention extended to recordings; there remains a notable dearth of sets devoted exclusively to Walker. Very partial redress comes in the form of this new album, in which Steven Beck takes on all five of Walker’s piano sonatas, written between 1953 and 2003.
The first sonata, revised in 1991, offers some of the galloping energy seemingly required when suggesting Americana, but it also includes a rambunctious harmonic edge that bristles with maverick spirit. By the time of the Third Sonata, written in 1975 and revised in 1996, atonality had taken center stage. But Walker’s signature feel for contrast — including alternations between motifs that ring out and peremptory chordal bursts — is still evident. With playing that’s slashing and sensitive by turns, Beck’s recital accentuates the through lines in a protean artistic life. SETH COLTER WALLS