Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Five musical post-Christmas gifts

No reason to stop giving just because the holiday season has come and gone, right? Your friends will appreciate these five CDs if they drop out of the sky for no reason at all. Two of them are essential listening; the other three have their charms.

I'm going to start with the most impressive classical recording I've heard in months: Igor Levit playing Beethoven's last five piano sonatas on a two-disc set for Sony. At 26, he has gone head to head with all the greats who've recorded these pieces so impressively -- Artur Schnabel, Wilhelm Kempff, Mitusko Uchida and so many others -- and come out with a fresh interpretation. Each rush of excitement or moment of gentle musing seems spontaneous, as if he were improvising. The Russian pianist knows Chopin was already composing when Beethoven died, and his poetic playing links the two composers in spirit. Here's a sample from a live performances of Beethoven's Sonata No. 31, slightly different from the one on this superbly recorded studio set:

My favorite original cast recording in multiple moons comes from "Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812," an adaptation of one section of Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace." I can't begin to give you a sense of it with a lone excerpt, because composer-lyricist Dave Malloy veers from cabaret-style songs to melancholy ballads to comic numbers that bolt like a runaway horse. (He even has time for a brief, funny parody of a Philip Glass-style opera.) Here's an excerpt, with the cast singing the prologue at an outdoor gig:

The show was created as an immersive experience, with members of the cast serving Russian food and dropping by to sit briefly at your table. The recording on Ghostlight Records goes as far as any could in recreating that feeling of being at a party, among friends related a tragic but ultimately redemptive story. (Well, redemptive for one character, anyhow. No spoilers here.)

The other three albums may appeal more to niche audiences. (All of these come from Ghostlight, too.) A new recording of "Marry Me a Little," assembling 17 rarely heard Stephen Sondheim songs, slightly changes the off-off-Broadway show conceived by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene in 1980. (For instance, the wistful "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here" is in; "Pour le Sport" is out.) Lauren Molina and Jason Tam sing sensitively; though few of these songs are top-drawer Sondheim, they hold up.

If you enjoyed the recent TV "Sound of Music," especially Laura Benanti's performance as Elsa, you're the target audience for "In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention," a live recording of her act from 54 Below in New York. (I'd call it a solo CD, but music director/pianist Todd Almond and his trio make crucial contributions.) Benanti scales down her Broadway-sized pipes, shows a quirky sense of humor and works through a strong, 13-song set with monologues attached. She ends with numbers from two roles she played on Broadway, "Unusual Way" (from "Nine") and the hilarious "Model Behavior" (from "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown").

For me, the main attractions in "Somethin' Real Special" are the still underappreciated lyrics by Dorothy Fields. As the notes by Maury Yeston say, she could write romantic standards ("I'm in the Mood for Love," "The Way You Look Tonight") or Lorenz Hart-like banter ("Then You Went and Changed Your Mind"), and she was comfortable with composers who favored the blues (Harold Arlen), old-fashioned romanticism (Sigmund Romberg) or jazz (Jimmy McHugh). Philip Chaffin's light baritone best conveys the lyrical ballads; he can't quite swing, but he puts over sweeter songs seldom heard nowadays, including the title cut and the introspective "Alone Too Long." A 25-piece orchestra backs him with a rich sound.