Classical CD reviews: Atlanta musicians in two outstanding new releases

Classical downloads now account for less than 10 percent of the total market, with classical CDs down to a woeful 2 percent. And much of those small figures come from pop-fueled classical “crossover” and feature the crooning of “American Idol” runners-up, and the like. (Free and illegal music sharing might account for more than paid-for music.)

Indeed, the formerly brawny and high-prestige labels, reliant on star appeal, have chased the cheesy more vigorously than the repertoire-driven budget and boutique labels.

The industry drop has thus had a leveling effect: in this new landscape, there’s no such thing as a “big event” release. A routine opera CD arrives with the same non-fanfare as a disc that documents a cultural milestone.

Two esteemed Atlanta artists -- conductor Robert Spano and tenor Lawrence Brownlee -- cover the spectrum of this terrain in new recordings of exceptional interest and high quality.

The conventional first. Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” – “The Italian Girl in Algiers” – is a saucy screwball opera from 1813, where an Arab tyrant tires of his wife and pursues a glamorous Italian lass, saved from a shipwreck along the coast. True love wins the day, of course, and the moral of the story is that men are no match for a headstrong woman.

Brownlee is a headliner in an excellent new “L’Italiana,” from a concert performance from the 2008 Wildbad Festival in Germany, on the budget Naxos label. It was recorded live by German radio, so the sonics are flattened, but otherwise the recording is strong all around, with attractive voices even in smaller roles and an 82-year-old conductor, Alberto Zedda, pacing the drama with comic suppleness and insight.

The heroine Isabella and her lover Lindoro -- mezzo Marianna Pizzolato and tenor Brownlee -- are a nicely matched pair, understated in their virtuosity, with endearing personalities and a natural sense of bel canto style. The whole thing is a delight.

With a lyric tenor that’s warm, sweet and agile, Brownlee’s career is still on steep ascent. Artistically, the Naxos “L’Italiana” is a marked improvement from his EMI recording of a few years ago. Perpetually on the road, he and his wife recently moved from Buckhead to south of the airport, and they’re expecting a first child.

Although he’s been in negotiations with the Atlanta Opera for several years -- Brownlee’s fees are higher than Atlanta can afford -- he says he’s eager to perform for his hometown crowd. “And I’d love to sleep in my own bed every night,” he says, without amusement.

“It’s important for Atlanta to bring Atlanta talent to the stage,” he adds, citing Atlantans with international careers who’ve performed in recent season, including countertenor David Daniels, mezzo Jennifer Larmore, bass Morris Robinson and tenor Russell Thomas.

The cultural milestone event is, or should have been, the Deutsche Grammophon recording of Osvaldo Golijov’s “La Pasion segun San Marcos,” a thrilling, life-changing masterpiece like no other.

A deluxe edition, it includes an audio recording conducted by Maria Guinand, who led the world premiere in 2000 and made the work’s previous recording (on the Hänssler Classic label). It also includes Spano conducting on a DVD, filmed live at the 2008 Holland Festival in Amsterdam.

Commissioned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, observed in 2000, “La Pasion” departs radically from Bach’s revered Passion settings. First of all, Golijov, raised in the Jewish tradition in Argentina, came to know Christianity -- specifically Latin American Catholicism -- for its solidarity with the poor but also intricately linked to dictatorships and death squads.

Second, “La Pasion” is from the New World. In re-telling the Gospel of Saint Mark, Golijov taps street sounds -- of Latin salsa and mambo and tango dance rhythms, of raw emotions, of mixed cultural traditions where there is no musical hierarchy: a Brazilian fado singer and Afro-Cuban vocalists display as much intense emotion as an operatic soprano. A band of Latin percussionists have a voice as potent as the traditional orchestra. The music makes clear that Jesus’ suffering is human suffering; Jesus might be any one of us.

Spano has brought much of Golijov’s music to Atlanta in concert, including “La Pasion” and the opera “Ainadamar” -- perhaps the highlights of Spano’s tenure as Atlanta Symphony music director.

There’s no stronger interpreter of Golijov’s music. On the DVD, Spano’s iron grip on the rhythms is so firm he can be fluid, willowy as necessary. Leading the Schola Cantorum de Venezuela (the only choir that sings “La Pasion”), he stands in the proudly defiant matador pose that Golijov taught him and snarls at the singers to unleash their most fierce emotions. More than any composer alive, Golijov’s music represents our times. And true to our times, new recordings don't muster the same impact that they used to.

Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of

CD reviews

Golijov “La Pasion segun San Marcos.” Robert Spano conducts at the 2008 Holland Festival. On Deutsche Grammophon DVD.

Rossini “L’Italiana in Algeri.” Alberto Zedda conducts. Naxos, 2 CDs.

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