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Brooklyn, Iceland And Outer Space: New Classical CDs

Classical music is thriving these days, thanks to young, smart musicians who don't always perform in traditional concert halls. Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason recently played a trendy club in New York's Greenwich Village, while the string quartet Brooklyn Rider wowed a crowd of indie rockers last month at Austin's South by Southwest music festival. NPR Music's Tom Huizenga and Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz spin these new recordings, and also indulge in the lush sounds of a soprano on her way to stardom and the world's best composer under the age of 40.

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John Cage: In A Landscape

This isn't your grandfather's string quartet. Brooklyn Rider plays some of the standard string quartet repertoire, but more often than not, it performs original compositions or new works, collaborating with a wide array of guest musicians. This CD uses Claude Debussy as a jumping-off point to many interesting places. His string quartet resides at the very center of the recording, and around it circles music by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen, a piece for Japanese flute, another by an Uzbek composer, and this marvelous arrangement of John Cage's In a Landscape (by Justin Messina). It expands on the original, with layers of electronics and strings that evoke the Chinese sheng (mouth organ) and a hint of glass harmonica. Spacious, rocking and calming.

Daniel Bjarnason: Processions -- In Media Res

You know that phrase, "They don't make 'em like that anymore?" Well in this case ... they do. It's a piano concerto called "Processions" by a relative newcomer from Iceland by the name of Daniel Bjarnason, who says he's "confronting" the heroic piano concerto in this piece. You can tell he's a fan of the Russian post-romantics. This piece has all the sarcastic grit of Prokofiev and the romance of Rachmaninov, easily heard in the opening bars, which begin with the crack of a whip. Yet the concerto isn't exactly derivative. Bjarnason makes a sound world all his own, with lush harmonies matched by a distinct 21st-century angst.

Sondra Radvanovsky: Verdi: 'D'amor sull' ali rosee' (Il Trovatore)

Few musical events are as exciting for me as hearing a terrific new singer for the very first time live. I heard Sondra Radvanovsky sing Verdi and Puccini arias last month, and was blown away. Now she has a brand-new record, her first solo recital disc. If she keeps on singing at this level, we have a major new star on our hands. She opens her mouth and huge streams of sound soar out like giant bolts of multicolored cloth -- shimmering silver, azure blue. It's a huge voice, yet she knows how to harness all that power. Note the passage beginning at 2:02 into this awesome aria from Verdi's Il Trovatore.

Thomas Ades: Tevot (excerpt)

Ades is arguably the finest composer under 40 today. Some would argue that he's the most impressive composer today, period. And it's hard not to agree when you hear Tevot, which Ades likens to a wild ride in outer space. Scored for extra-large orchestra, the music creates a vast sound world of its own. Beginning with the highest, thinnest strands of tone in the violins, the piece veers off to violent crashes in percussion, hulking, twisted dances, and sudden ejections into near silence. Eventually a wistful melody emerges, grows, explodes and brings us back to earth. The Berlin Philharmonic whispers and roars.

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 -- Allegro moderato (excerpt)

Sometimes it takes a simple, beautifully executed performance to remind you how great Beethoven's music really is. Take the Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5. Fans have heard them countless times. But in the hands of pianist Till Fellner, who's not in it for himself but lets the music do the talking, the results can rekindle all of Beethoven's fire, ice and grace. A great example is the opening of the 4th concerto. Beethoven, uncharacteristically, lets the solo piano start it all off. It won't return for another three minutes, and when it does, there's no stentorian re-entry, just Fellner's clear-headed approach and rich tone, allowing Beethoven's rolling scales, trills and dramatic statements to speak for themselves.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.