If you’re a fan of adult cartoons, you may have already heard the music of the composer JG Thirlwell, who has written antic and entertaining themes for “Archer” and “The Venture Bros.” But he has also long plied his trade on the contemporary classical scene, with compositions for the Kronos Quartet and Alarm Will Sound.
At a harmonic level, his cartoon scores don’t sound much like his “serious” music. But there is one constant at work: Thirlwell is an entertainer. That quality makes his latest album — a series of quartets played by the Mivos Quartet — a particular highlight.
A demonstration of his talent comes during the first minute of “Ozymandias,” the album’s vivacious, tightly plotted centerpiece. After establishing an easy facility with some evergreen avant-garde-isms — stabbing staccato, glowering glissandi — Thirlwell writes a passage of singing, vibrato-strewn playing. Then it’s back to the savagery. Crucially, though, he’s not afraid of more vulnerable sonic states. That sensibility pays off handsomely throughout the album, not least in the penultimate work, “Heliophobia.”
At a surface level, the sequencing of this album’s five works alternates between intense ragers and more intimate meditations, but each one also contains multitudes. And chalk up another victory for the Mivos players; last year, they brought new pieces by the improvising guitarist Mary Halvorson into the classical sphere. Now they’ve made a mark this year as well. SETH COLTER WALLS
‘Der Ferne Klang …’: Orchestral Works & Songs by Franz Schreker
Chen Reiss, soprano; Matthias Goerne, baritone; Konzerthausorchester Berlin, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor (Deutsche Grammophon)
Heady, enveloping, ever so slightly preposterous — what magnificent music Franz Schreker wrote for the orchestra, and what a shame that it has fallen into such disfavor. Every so often, a recording comes along to restore its lavish glories to honor, though, and this one is particularly welcome for its range, its quality and its devotion to the cause.
Christoph Eschenbach might not conjure the sense of freedom and wonder that enraptures in the most intoxicating accounts of Schreker’s scores — Michael Gielen’s “Vorspiel zu einem Drama,” say, or Marc Albrecht’s “Der Schatzgräber” — but the subtlety and control that he brings to these performances is impressive nevertheless.
Take the extraordinary amount of detail to be heard in the wandering, longing “Nachtstück” from “Der Ferne Klang,” or the care evident in the “Valse Lente,” which the Konzarthausorchester players phrase with charming, naïve serenity. The gorgeous Chamber Symphony and the dainty Kleine Suite receive exquisite readings, reminders of a delicacy in Schreker’s writing that is often forgotten amid all its opulence. Chen Reiss and Matthias Goerne make sensitive arguments in turn for the mournful “Vom ewigen Leben,” which sets poetry by Whitman, and the doleful “Fünf Gesänge.” Only the Romantic Suite falls short, dragging a little too often in tempo; but if it does, well, that’s just an excuse, if you should need one, to find another Schreker recording to fall in love with. DAVID ALLEN
‘Fantasie: Seven Composers, Seven Keyboards’
Alexander Melnikov (Harmonia Mundi)
One downside of the period-instrument movement is that its insistence on historical accuracy has put something of a damper on recordings that cross centuries and styles. Enter Alexander Melnikov, a pianist whose latest album traces the development of the fantasy, Western music’s most imaginative and least rule-bound form, from the 18th to 20th centuries.
Each composer is heard on a different keyboard, kicking off with Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, performed to crisp, punchy effect on a copy of a two-manual harpsichord from the 17th century, and coming full circle with Schnittke’s grinding Improvisation and Fugue, played on a Steinway less than a decade old.
Melnikov calls the program a “handshake game” in which the imprint of one composer can be heard in those that follow (though sometimes at subterranean depths). Something similar goes for the instruments as well. The tangent piano — a now-obscure instrument from the 18th century, on which Melnikov plays a harmonically daring fantasia by C.P.E. Bach — has some exotic timbres that become both smoother and more unified on the fortepiano used for two works by Mozart.
Greater resonance materializes in works by Chopin and especially Mendelssohn, whose Fantasia in F-sharp minor bristles with edgy intensity and Romantic brio. But this just scratches the surface of the connections made and the surprises encountered in this recording, which is, pardon the expression, just fantastic. DAVID WEININGER
Michael Spyres, tenor; Il Pomo d’Oro; Francesco Corti, conductor (Erato)
On his new set of arias from the Baroque and early Classical eras, Michael Spyres stretches himself to the limit. By my math, he sings across three octaves, bringing panache and a juicy, pliable sound to music written for tenors who could rival castratos in virtuosity and beauty of tone.
In 2021, this sui generis vocalist released “Baritenor,” an album with an audacious — if at times unconvincing — mix of famous baritone and tenor arias. In “Contra-Tenor,” by contrast, Spyres sounds free, fresh and dashing, equalizing the registers of a chestnut-colored voice from dusky lows to lightsome highs. He visits the rare air above high C in boffo flashes and relishes bottom notes for their own brand of virtuosity, recalling Marilyn Horne’s revelrous way with downward ornaments in “Una voce poco fa.”
The album hits one stupefying climax after another, and for a recital with arias by Mozart, Handel and Gluck, it’s a testament to Spyres’s showmanship that the best moments come in the rarities. His weightless tone beguiles in Sarro’s “Fra l’ombre un lampo solo,” and his poise amid the big leaps and tiny twists of arias by Mazzoni and Latilla beggars belief.
The conductor Francesco Corti’s effervescent style with Il Pomo d’Oro propels Spyres’s handsome, explosive vocalism. These musicians leave little doubt of the star power of the Baroque-era tenors who sang this material — and of the singer who is reviving it. OUSSAMA ZAHR
Elfman: Violin Concerto, Hailstork: Piano Concerto
Sandy Cameron, violin; Stewart Goodyear, piano; Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra; JoAnn Falletta, conductor (Naxos)
The conductor JoAnn Falletta has wide-ranging taste. She was an early interpreter of the music of John Luther Adams; in recent years, she has investigated rarities by Franz Schreker and Victor Herbert, while also playing arrangements of Ellington with her players at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, where she has been the music director since 1999.
That curiosity is given room to roam once again on this album. Danny Elfman’s madcap and noirish gifts — familiar to fans of Tim Burton movies and “The Simpsons” — are on intermittent display throughout his Violin Concerto No. 1. But with a running time of over 40 minutes, this work also often belabors its points; sometimes, it neglects to give the orchestra enough to do.
Happily, Adolphus Hailstork’s Piano Concerto No. 1 rewards the orchestra more richly. His music is, at last, starting to be programmed more regularly; on June 13, the New York Choral Society will present his recent “A Knee on the Neck” at David Geffen Hall. In the first movement here, he puts folkloric Americana riffs through surprising variations while also engaging with the raucous legacy of Ballets Russes-era Stravinsky. In the second movement, Hailstork, he crafts themes full of yearning ardor. And in the finale, these diverse fascinations are fused with ingenuity. The whole piece is a corker. SETH COLTER WALLS