The New Yorker

In Chambers
by Russell Platt

January 19, 2009

The events of last year took place on a grand scale. Yet some of the most satisfying classical disks of the past few months offer performances of the most intimate kind.

Keeril Makan is an arrestingly gifted young American composer, as he proves on his new album, “In Sound” (Tzadik). In two works performed by the Kronos Quartet, Makan moves blocks of jagged sound around with the pitiless determination of a brutalist architect (“The Noise Between Thoughts”) and crafts the most humble chords and scraps of melody into a lulling whole (“Washed by Fire”). If accessibility is what you crave, then turn to the mandolin phenom and emerging composer Chris Thile. In his first album with his string band Punch Brothers, “Punch” (Nonesuch), he mixes his bluegrass sounds with Baroque bass lines, atonal textures, and bits of late-Romantic harmony to make “The Blind Leaving the Blind,” a four-movement reinvention of the string quintet.

The voice of the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, in its tragic grandeur, somehow made the hard facts of life more bearable; a 1999 recital at Wigmore Hall (Wigmore Hall Live) with the pianist Julius Drake shows the mezzo-soprano giving unexpected depths to Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben” and a forthright tone to Brahms’s strikingly erotic Eight Songs, Op. 57. In contrast, the sylph-like sounds of the soprano Susan Narucki, ably accompanied by Donald Berman in “The Light That Is Felt” (New World Records), give a touching equanimity to a group of Charles Ives songs that includes such temperamental opposites as “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and “Like a Sick Eagle.”

Ives’s young friend Elliott Carter, now entering his second century, is still a bright light of American music. In “Oppens Plays Carter” (Cedille), the pianist Ursula Oppens gathers nearly all of Carter’s solo piano music—from his Piano Sonata (1945-46) to “Matribute” (2007)—onto one disk, delivering it with a mix of grit and grace. The pianist Pedja Muzijevic accomplishes an equally impressive feat in “Sonatas & Other Interludes” (Albany), an odd but compelling album that alternates short works for prepared piano by John Cage with compositions by Liszt, Schumann, and W. F. Bach.

Joseph Haydn, who invented modern chamber music, infused his middle-period chamber symphonies with an impassioned experimentalism that can still sound jarring today. The Munich Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Liebreich, gives the Symphonies No. 39 and No. 45 (“Farewell”) plenty of drive and glamour in a recording (on ECM) that also offers a fascinating chamber symphony by the late Berlin-based Korean composer Isang Yun. Franz Schreker, in his luxuriant way, paid tribute to Haydn in his own magnificent Chamber Symphony, heard in a near-definitive recording (ECM) by Peter Eötvös and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra, complemented by Heinrich Schiff’s interpretation of Friedrich Cerha’s Concerto for Cello and Orchestra.