In just the past few years, Austin’s classical music groups have released a quantity of recordings that probably would come as a surprise even to die-hard fans. Some have released two records in 2015 alone.
But what isn’t surprising is that the recordings are ambitious — often the result of deep digging into archives for worthy music that hadn’t been given a worthy album. Those in search of stocking stuffers or other holiday gifts will be pleased to know that the results are of a quality that competes for the ears of listeners on an international scale.
Some titles on this list are already well-known to classical music aficionados in Austin and across the country, while others are hidden gems worth seeking out, whether at local record stores like Waterloo (which maintains a small but smartly curated selection) or on iTunes and Bandcamp. And a few are outliers to appeal to those tired of turkey, constant consumerism and thoughts of going back to work after the holidays.
Conspirare, “The Sacred Spirit of Russia.”
There’s a reason Conspirare won a Grammy and beaming international reviews for this recording. Play Vladimir Martynov’s “The Beatitudes,” a duet whose harmonies cut to the core, and you’ll be transported into a land of Siberian sugarplums. Conspirare was fêted for recording Russian music that had been largely out of circulation in the West, but the result of pulling these gems from relative obscurity was no dry academic duty; this record is warm and staggeringly beautiful. A must-have for lovers of Austin music, if there ever was one.
Texas Early Music Project, “Noël: An Early Christmas.”
There’s a reason TEMP’s annual Christmas concert sells out. Europeans in the 16th century really knew how to party — or celebrate, at least. These joyous, haunting early music selections from the English Isles, Spain and France epitomize an ideal of Christmas: spare, humble, spiritual, miles away from outlet malls and online sales. Put this one in your car and leave it there intil Old Christmas Day.
Austin Symphony Orchestra, “Burlingame Hill: Symphony No. 4, and Orchestral Works.”
The ASO’s successful crowd-funded recording brings to life an outstanding act of scholarship. It’s the music of an American best known for teaching (Leonard Bernstein among others), whose own work was left to history’s back pages. Starring the very crisp, clean piano of Anton Nel, this recording finds the ASO sounding lush and polished — with a wall of sound one usually associates with big league orchestras. It’s a major statement from Peter Bay and the ASO, and more importantly, a vibrant performance that’s fun to listen to. The divertimenti here are just gorgeous.
Aeolus Quartet, “Many Sided Music”
This young quartet’s hyperaccomplished players have left this record as a time stamp of their years in Austin, when they were a graduate quartet-in-residence at the University of Texas. And there’s no youthful folly here. There are three “Rags” by William Bolcom, each one a slippery beauty, but there are Austin composers here, too. Steven Snowden’s “Appalachian Polaroids” is a haunting work that blends a wicked, crackly field recording of “Black is the Color” with a series of harmonics and slides. If this doesn’t affect the gift recipient on your list, check for a pulse.
Miró Quartet, “Transcendence”
This recording, the latest from the recently prolific Austin foursome, is still a free download on the Miró website, as of this writing. A critic once said listening to the Miró is like driving a Porsche: all elegance and power. Their Schubert is muscular yet brainy — boring playing is anathema to them. Purists, of course, should seek out the full-quality CD. If Schubert isn’t on the menu, the Miró’s recent Beethoven recording, of “Op. 59,” the Razumovsky quartets, will do very nicely.
Anne Akiko-Meyers, “Arvo Pärt: Passacaglia”
Arvo Pärt’s music can be infantilized in the wrong hands, but the hands of Austin’s resident violin superstar are made of different stuff. Here on this brand new release, in “Fratres Pt. 1” she makes mincemeat of Pärt’s reputation for tenderness with a full spectrum of colors, beautiful ones included.
But this is Meyers’ second release this year. In September, her work with the London Symphony Orchestra, “Serenade: The Love Album,” featured her on a feisty work by Bernstein, packaged alongside some poppier stuff by Ennio Morricone and George Gershwin. Meyers was the best-selling classical music artist in America in 2014, and with a mix of serious, artful concertos and meaty takes on pop standards, there’s no question why. Now, if we could only get her to perform here more often.
Conspirare, “Pablo Neruda - The Poet Sings” and “Path of Miracles”
For die-hard Conspirare fans, the Russian record is last year’s news. Luckily Craig Hella Johnson’s ensemble has released two more this year. There’s “Pablo Neruda - The Poet Sings” featuring Austin composer Donald Grantham’s starry-eyed “La Cancion Desperada” and other ebullient, devout works of the great poet. That album has just netted the group a Grammy nomination. But for something completely different, the chorus also released “Path of Miracles” by British composer Joby Talbot. It’s a moving response to the path of pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. “Miracles” is a poignant, austere work that’s perfect for Conspirare’s clean-toned singers, with gorgeous reverb and interweaving voices. Probably not the best choice for Christmas parties; save it for when the crowd’s all gone.
Thomas Burritt, “Groundlines”
The UT percussion professor has a record that balances thought-provoking art with listenability. That record is “Groundlines.” But also check out his brand new recording of Bach’s “Suite for Solo Cello No. 5 in C Minor, BMV 1011,” not just re-worked for marimba but also reimagined, with a thought-provoking, unusual interpretation of Bach that is very worthwhile.
Line Upon Line Percussion, “Self-Titled”
They’re due for a new release, but this Austin trio’s self-titled album is loaded with Austin connections — vibrant, plonky and shimmering works from composers who are here and elsewhere: Zach Stanton, James D. Norman, Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke. They make music out of plastic bags, buckshot, and the usual percussion toolkit.
Peter Stopschinski, “Now Would be a Good Time”
Somewhere between alt-classical, electronica and jazz lies this record that is funky enough to be a party soundtrack — if you skip a couple tracks — but is textured enough to require headphones. Stopschinski throws a bunch of stuff at the wall here to see what sticks.
Sarah Hennies, “Work”
Former Austinite, composer and New Music Co-op percussionist Sarah Hennies released this drop-dead gorgeous record with just two tracks, one almost too short at 10 minutes and another, longer piece. The shorter of these, “Settle,” is for solo vibraphone and acts more like musical meditation — the kind of thing you play to calm your nerves as you try to close the 45 open tabs on your browser or need to escape your relatives.
Pierian Recordings, “Nissman Plays Ginastera: The Three Piano Concertos”
For the classical connoisseur who already has everything, there’s Austin’s outstanding rare and obscurities record label, Pierian. They have a recent record of Kathryn Mishell compositions that are fantastically angular, like a tense conversation between friends. But for collectors, it’s very much worth seeking out all the rarities on offer here. “Liszt’s Students Play Liszt” is history for your ears. But how about the world premiere recordings of forgotten concertos by Alberto Ginastera? This is a warm recording of the Argentinian composer’s peppy, surprising and challenging work.
Listen to our Spotify playlist of Austin classical music with this story on mystatesman.com.