Byzantium in Rome (cappellaromana.org), the ninth release from Portland vocal ensemble Cappella Romana, explores the little-heard yet immensely powerful 13th-century music chanted by expatriate Greek monks in the Italian Byzantine abbey of Grottaferrata. The stentorian cantor Ioannis Arvanitis and Steve Barnett's sensitive production channel the cathedral atmosphere of the group's extraordinary concerts.
For some complementary distaff vocals, try the seraphic new CD by another superb Portland early music ensemble, In Mulieribus ("among women"), whose Notre Dame de Grâce (inmulieribus.org) covers sweeping 12th- and 13th-century music from Paris and northern France in the polyphonic style called conductus.
Does the world really need another recording of Vivaldi's omnipresent Four Seasons? If you're talking about Portland Baroque Orchestra's sparkling new version, featuring one of the world's leading Baroque violinists—longtime music director Monica Huggett—the answer is yes. The group's brisk, dramatic period instrument performance does full justice to these colorful masterpieces, making us hear them afresh.
Portland composers are using classical forms in new ways. Most Portlanders know Bryan Johanson as a master guitarist who's taught at Portland State for three decades, but he's taken compositional duties for the Northwest's leading new music ensemble, Third Angle, with an ambitious cycle of string quartets. Each of his Four Quartets(Gagliano) has a character much like each movement of a typical quartet, with the final, five-part entry bringing it all together. The general mood ranges from tense to ruminative, punctuated by urgent, dramatic passages, and the cycle merits close attention.
Former Portland State music prof Joseph Waters, now teaching in San Diego, continues his ambitious, wide-range explorations on Swarmius (Aleppo), also the name of his violin-sax-percussion-laptop ensemble. Thoughtfully yet effortlessly combining European art music, American pop, African and other world music influences, and electronica, Waters succeeds in creating fascinating 21st-century soundscapes.