One of the confounding things about classical music is choosing from dozens (sometimes hundreds) of recordings of the same piece. I haven't heard every CD of Igor Stravinsky's jolting symphonic masterpiece, The Rite of Spring (1911–13), but I've sorted through enough of them to recommend Robert Craft's Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring/The Nightingale (Naxos) as an almost unsurpassable choice.
An orchestral stampede of careening timbres (blaring and blatting horns), pastoral melodies (especially the opening bassoon tune), jarring blocs of sound, and frenzied rhythms, The Rite requires a virtuoso conductor. At the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra, Robert Craft delivers the goods. A long-time Stravinsky friend, aide-de-camp, and musical collaborator, Craft retains The Rite's powerful rhythmic thrust while remaining marvelously attentive to the music's ornate detail.
The Naxos disc has superb sonics, surpassing Craft's admirable 1991 recording on MusicMasters for clarity, depth, and overall punch. Rowdy sections such as "Ritual of the Rival Tribes," "Dance of the Earth," and the apocalyptic "Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One)" boom with big, broad-shouldered bass drum licks and pounding timpani. And I love hearing things like the scraping râpé guiro in "The Procession of the Sage," which some conductors of The Rite neglect altogether. The Nightingale, Stravinsky's glittering one-act opera based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, rounds out the disc, a bargain at $8 (or cheaper when on sale).
Like Stravinsky, composer Kyle Gann has an astounding ability to forcibly deploy complex rhythms without sounding cluttered or pretentiously convoluted. Although his writings for the Village Voice and his "PostClassic" blog (at artsjournal.com/postclassic) place Gann among the most perceptive writers covering adventurous music today, his compositions deserve wider recognition.
Gann's new disc of player-piano studies, Nude Rolling Down an Escalator (New World), showcases his sense of humor and willingness to tweak the past. The brilliant "Petty Larceny" pillages and recombines snippets of Beethoven piano sonatas while "Bud Ran Back Out," an homage to the pianism of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk's tune "In Walked Bud," speeds up bebop piano runs into a blurry blizzard of notes. I also like Long Night (Cold Blue), a 25-minute piece for three pianos whose mobile layers and loose, undulating lines suggest a half-dozen CDs of Erik Satie's melancholy "Trois Gymnopédies" dissected and layered in ProTools.
Based on his hilarious, clowning performance at the Seattle Improvised Music Festival in 2004, I expected tubist William Roper's disc If I Ran the Circus (Tomato Sage Consortium) to teem with laughs. Instead Roper offers up curious compositions and improvisations for unusual combinations of instruments including violin, cello, and glockenspiel (the mournful "Throttle-Up!"); tuba, flute, and percussion ("Three Guys on a Hilltop"); and cello, high hat, and voice ("Poem for Emmett Till"). It's hard to tell what is improvised and what is composed on this disc–a good sign for any kind of music—I just like listening to Roper's distinctive pieces.