Third Angle, Sound of the Five (New World)
The veteran Portland new music ensemble has formed a close connection with the ebullient, Guangzhou-born Chen Yi, who now teaches and composes in the U.S. While only one piece entirely originated in China, most look toward her homeland in some way, incorporating folk tunes or imitating the sound of indigenous Chinese instruments such as the erhu fiddle, chi'in zither or hsiao flute. Her experience as a violinist informs much of the string writing here, and the band performs with real understanding and distinction throughout the wide range of emotional territory it covers. Half the pieces are for string quartet, while others include piano, flute, clarinet and percussion. This isn't just one of the finest CDs by an Oregon ensemble—it's one of the decade's most compelling albums of postclassical chamber music.
Perfect gift for: Big fans of Portland Art Museum's China Design Now exhibit.
Ensemble Sonnerie, J.S. Bach Orchestral Suites (Avie)
Just nominated for a Grammy, this brilliant new album featuring Portland Baroque Orchestra director and violinist Monica Huggett and oboist Gonzalo Ruiz relies on current scholarship and veteran performance experience to remove later changes and restore these classics to as close an approximation of the composer's original intentions, orchestrations and instrumentation as so far possible. Most startlingly, in Suite No. 2, oboe replaces solo flute, which according to Ruiz solves a number of performance problems the usual version (a revision of a lost predecessor) presents when the piece is transposed to what's known to be its original key. The result is a revelation Ruiz plays with incisive spirit, handling the urgent tempo with easy aplomb. Shorn of the majestic trumpets and drums later added, what the third (with the famous Air, here admirably dispatched without the usual lugubriousness) and fourth suites lose in grandeur they more than make up in poignancy, danceable lightness and crisp, transparent sound. Overall, these elegant, unsentimental, historically informed performances on period instruments deliver this magnificent music's rhythmic punch while sounding more lively and natural than the many others I've heard.
Perfect gift for: Anyone who wants to hear what music's greatest composer really wanted us to hear.
Al-Andalus Ensemble, 21 Strings (ALA)
Portland flamenco guitarist Julia Banzi and oud virtuoso Tarik Banzi have long demonstrated their masterful devotion to the rich, multicultural sounds of eighth-to-15th-century Spain, when Muslims, Christians and Jews combined to create potent artistic hybrids. Their alluring new disc, with violinist Charlie Bisharat (from Shadowfax), explores new territory: original chamber music inspired by Iberia's Al-Andalus period but appealing to contemporary ears. Fans of classical and world music will find it irresistible.
Perfect gift for: Idealists who imagine that music can bring people of different beliefs together.
Mei Zhong with James Helton, The Silvered Lute (North Pacific)
Former UO prof Derek Healey composed the evocative title work that highlights this disk of mostly contemporary music for soprano and piano. Much more than mere chinoiserie, Healey's iridescent suite lovingly evokes Asian scenes and complements Chinese composer Hua Lin's atmospheric The Wind and the Rain. Eleanor Trawick's Earth pushes Mei Zhong's operatic voice a bit toward shrillness, but the other works on the disc, by Judith Cloud and an oldie by Joaquin Turina, round out an attractive recital.
Perfect gift for: Opera and art music fans looking for something new and different.