The Seattle Times: 4 Local Classical Recordings of Note

Publication: 
The Seattle Times

Some noteworthy recordings have come from the Northwest in the past year, from local musician Michael Nicolella, Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony and composer Jake Heggie with Music of Remembrance.

By Melinda Bargreen

SEATTLE (November 9, 2014) - The recording industry has hit some major icebergs in the past decades, from rampant piracy to streaming services that offer puny returns to performers. But an impressive lineup of recent Northwest recordings — some available via streaming/downloading and CD formats — shows that the best local work will continue to rise, in the recording studio as well as the concert hall.

Seattle Opera’s internationally renowned nature-themed (“Green”) production of the Wagnerian “Ring,” performed every four years from 2001 to 2013, was immortalized on disc with AVIE Records in the summer of 2013 after drawing opera fans from two dozen countries and every U.S. state to Seattle. This production, the third “Ring” for Seattle (each completely different from the other two), was also the culmination thus far of a Seattle Wagnerian history that began in 1975.

With nature-themed sets by Thomas Lynch, visionary staging by Stephen Wadsworth, and several remarkable casts of singers over the four performance summers, this “Ring” was assembled by Speight Jenkins, the company’s former general director, who retired in August.

Would a live recording capture the “Ring”? Would it sound too directional as the singers moved about the stage; could the microphones capture the huge Wagnerian voices? Would there be too much stage (and audience) noise, in a production where singers are leaping around on rocks, pounding anvils, hauling gold ore, flying through the air, and dueling a dragon?

Happily, the results are great: not airbrushed perfection, but a “you are there” sense that extends to some appreciative audience chuckles when warranted by the libretto. The surging excitement of Asher Fisch’s conducting the responsive orchestra is fully present here, underscoring a cast of vivid and powerful voices. Nothing will ever eclipse the excitement of being there for the “Ring,” but this recording comes remarkably close.

The 14-disc set is available commercially, or as digital download on iTunes. It is the first “Ring” recording to be offered with an interactive iTunes LP.

Seattle Symphony

(“Become Ocean,” by John Luther Adams, Seattle Symphony, Cantaloupe Music, cantaloupemusic.com): The Seattle Symphony Orchestra’s new recording of “Become Ocean,” a John Luther Adams work commissioned and premiered by the SSO and music director Ludovic Morlot last year, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Traditional Classical chart on Oct. 8 after earning rapturous reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times. The work’s swirling, up-and-down arpeggios and repetitive currents reflect Adams’ “trying to create a sense of endless space and suspended time,” as he observed in an NPR “All Things Considered” interview.

Morlot fully realizes the subtleties of the undulating score, which builds into surging, wavelike peaks of sound at three key intervals. The Seattle Symphony — the same orchestra featured on the Seattle Opera “Ring” set — does a heroic job here as well.

Released on the Cantaloupe Music label (distributed by Naxos), the new recording features not only the 42-minute one-movement performance, but also a DVD with a slowly mesmerizing slideshow of photographic ocean images, by National Geographic photographers Paul Chesley and Sebastian Meckelmann. The disc is also available at Symphonia in Benaroya Hall.

Michael Nicolella

(Complete Bach Cello Suites, transcribed and performed by Michael Nicolella, guitar; www.galerecordings.com): Johann Sebastian Bach’s six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello are among the most beloved touchstones of the instrumental repertoire — performed and recorded by all the greats, and played every March in Seattle by members of the Seattle Cello Society. The Suites also have been transcribed for almost every imaginable instrument, from the ukulele to the tuba.

Tampering with Bach’s “holy writ” original takes courage as well as skill, and Seattle guitarist Michael Nicolella clearly has both. Taking Bach’s own transcription of the Suite No. 5 for lute as his model, Nicolella skillfully adapts the Suites to the different propensities of the guitar, adding bass lines, harmonies, and ornaments that are both creative and appropriate. (He plays Suite No. 5 in Bach’s lute transcription.) The recorded sound is resonant and clear, setting off Nicolella’s smooth virtuosity and the great freedom of his playing in performances that show the Suites in an entirely new light.

Music of Remembrance

(“Out of Darkness,” works by Jake Heggie; Music of Remembrance, Naxos American Classics, www.naxos.com): Three music-theater works by the American composer Jake Heggie — all composed for the Seattle ensemble Music of Remembrance — are recorded here for the first time by the musicians who premiered them in Benaroya Hall’s Nordstrom Recital Hall. Heggie, one of today’s most celebrated opera and song composers, collaborated with librettist Gene Scheer in these three moving and expertly performed pieces. The harrowing, memorable texts are drawn from writings of Holocaust survivors. Heggie’s settings are sometimes spare and anguished, sometimes lyrical and soaring, and full of the hope and suffering conveyed by Scheer’s libretti.

The recording captures the 2013 song-cycle version of “For a Look or a Touch” (premiered here as a music drama in 2007), powerfully sung by baritone Morgan Smith, who also is heard (with soprano Caitlin Lynch and mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen) in “Farewell Auschwitz.” Lynch has a poignant solo turn in “Another Sunrise.” Many noted Seattle Symphony musicians join pianist Craig Sheppard in the expertly nuanced chamber ensemble.

A line from “Farewell Auschwitz” proclaims: “The words of a survivor are like stars in the sky. They illuminate only a tiny piece of the past.” This recording offers a mini-galaxy of those stars.

Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at mbargreen@aol.com.

Read the original online publication here.