Christina And Michelle Naughton, Piano Duets (Orfeo). Christina and Michelle Naughton were the stunning twin pianists in their early 20s who joined the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for its recent Mozart birthday celebration. They played the Concerto For Two Pianos in E Flat, K. 365. Their artistry is beautifully showcased in this collection of music for two pianos ranging from Mozart (the sublime Sonata in D, K. 448) to the Variations on a Theme of Paganini by Witold Lutoslawski, their sparkling encore after their BPO performance. This is an entrancing disc. The Mozart sonata works out beautifully – better, I thought, than the concerto did at Kleinhans. The recording has more depth than the live performance. Even the Schubert on the disc – the four-hand Allegro D. 947, “Lebenssturme” – has poetry and soul. The Naughtons are young enough so their strongest suit is still their technique. Their technique, I have to say, is a pleasure. In Mendelssohn’s Allegro brilliant in A, which opens this disc, they run up the keyboards with such finesse that you just want to close your eyes and smile. They are amazingly together, which adds real grace to Ravel’s “La Valse” in the two-piano arrangement. The disc ends with the Lutoslawski, which brought the house down at Kleinhans. It’s the kind of music that was made for them. Three and 1/2 stars. (Mary Kunz Goldman)
Adderley & Holliday, Piano Duo Project (Albany). Collaborative pianists Meisha Adderley and Stacey Holliday explore their African-American heritage on this disc of fascinating music by African-American composers. Dolores White’s “Rock-a-My Soul” is a ragtime take on the old spiritual a lot of us might know from camp. White’s “Rhythm of the Claves” is a toccata of Afro-Cuban inspiration. Both pieces are imaginative and a lot of fun. The highlight of the disc is a set of arrangements for two pianos of three pieces by the great William Grant Still. The first is “Summerland,” and the second is the reflective “Kaintuck,” which reminded me of the lovely piano miniatures of Edward MacDowell. The third is an ancient arrangement of the Scherzo from Still’s famous “Afro-American Symphony.” I can’t imagine why more pianists don’t tackle this piece. It works beautifully on piano, with its imaginative rhythms and accompaniment figures and hints of Gershwin. (Rumor had it Gershwin cribbed melodies from Still.) Two pieces by Hale Smith (1925-2009) struck me as pretentious, but I liked the engaging “Allegro Giocoso” by Cedric Adderley, a composer born in 1965. It lived up to its name: invigorating, but bright and witty. Adderley is Meisha Adderley’s husband, though the notes don’t seem to say. There is a lot to love about this disc, and a lot of music you do not hear nearly enough. Three stars (M.K.G.)
Emanuel Ax, Variations, music by Beethoven, Haydn and Schumann (Sony Classical). Emanuel Ax is one of the best pianists in the business, virtuosic but at the same time relaxed and humorous. All his good qualities shine in this off-the-beaten-track disc. Good for Ax for giving us Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations instead of the “Diabelli.” The noble, witty and intimate “Eroica” variations are too much in the shadow of the big “Diabelli,” which I think people admire more out of a sense of duty. Ax’s playing is bright and extroverted. He throws in his own little touches right from the get-go, lingering on the Beethoven piece’s opening fermata for about a year. The music bounces and glitters and you have to drop what you are doing and listen – the performance commands attention. The Haydn Variations in F Minor are fascinating in an 18th century way. They’ve been played by Alicia de Larrocha, Marc-Andre Hamelin and Alfred Brendel, among others – but they, too, are too often overlooked. I always get from them a sense of constrained passion and Ax’s clear and unsentimental approach brings that out. The disc ends with Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13, a change of pace into a different era. Ax writes his own liner notes, and they’re illuminating in the same straightforward way as his playing. It’s especially interesting how he discusses the Haydn. “The melody begins on off beats, hesitantly and sadly, almost as though the right hand listens to and accompanies the left hand.” Three and 1/2 stars (M.K.G.)
Mozart, Divertimenti in D, K. 251 and 334, the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, Helmut Mueller-Bruehl, conductor (Naxos). Here is your cheap indulgence for the new year, a fine shining CD of two of the more well-known Mozart divertimenti (more or less another term for serenades). The second, K. 334, is especially famous because of its beautiful and stately Minuet. This is music you can listen to anywhere, whether you are driving in your car, cleaning your house, studying for an exam or walking in the park. Mozart wrote it as entertainment. It was not designed to command your full attention. But that’s the glory of it: The music doesn’t change the world, but you marvel all the same. Its casual perfection amazes you in the way the “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” does, and there are bittersweet interludes that rival Mozart’s more “serious” works. The music definitely gives back more than it demands. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra, led by Mueller-Bruehl, resists the temptation to overengineer the music. They play it straight, with conservative tempos and a luminous string sound. This recording was made from German radio. I have to mention that just so I can write that magnificent word Deutschlandfunk. Three stars. (M.K.G.)
Eric Burdon, “’Til Your River Runs Dry” (ABCKO). Fifty years into the game, Eric Burdon still sounds an awful lot like that diminutive but fiery 20-year-old Brit belting out the blues like a man on fire, in the process helping the Animals to become one of the most significant garage rock bands of the ’60s, if not in history. Burdon is a man who has never really gone out of fashion, although more recently, high-profile appearances at the 2012 SXSW Festival (alongside Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) and a scorching collaboration with the young underground garage rock band the Greenhornes pushed him back toward the limelight. Now comes “‘Til Your River Runs Dry,” a sturdy blues-, soul- and R&B-tinged collection of rock songs that offer Burdon’s perspective on mortality as a man whose only true peers are the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. Animals fans will perhaps find the production a bit slick, at least compared to the rough and ready, warts-and-all approach favored on that band’s classic recordings. But there’s much to love here for fans of Burdon’s still vibrant bluesy shout. Three stars (Jeff Miers)
Kris Kristofferson, “Feeling Mortal” (KK records). He’s 76, so, sure, Kris Kristofferson is feeling mortal. Over the last several years, however, that feeling has resharpened his muse, resulting in his best work since the ’60s and ’70s, when he introduced a new poetic lyricism to country music. “Feeling Mortal” is no exception – it’s the first great album of 2013.
As on 2006’s “This Old Road” and 2009’s “Closer to the Bone,” producer Don Was puts Kristofferson in the best possible light. He highlights the aging troubadour’s craggy grace with spare arrangements that fit his conversational delivery and heighten the intimacy of these songs about life, love and hard-earned wisdom. (Not all of them are new: Two have 1970s copyrights, which makes for a nice linking of his two golden ages.) Kristofferson may be feeling mortal, but that’s also freeing, and so the silver-haired devil doesn’t sound as though he’s ready to quit anytime soon, as he indicates on “You Don’t Tell Me What to Do.” And while “Ramblin’ Jack” pays tribute to his friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Kristofferson could also be singing about himself: “And I know he ain’t afraid of where he’s going/ And I’m sure he ain’t ashamed of where he’s been/ ... And he made his own mistakes, and love, and friends/ Ain’t that what matters in the end.” Four stars. (Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer)
DRGN King, “Paragraph Nights” (Bar None). DRGN King brings together two Philly music scenesters. Hip-hop producer Brent “Ritz” Reynolds has worked with the Roots, Wale and La Roux. Journeyman singer/guitarist Dominic Angelella has juggled various blues (Elevator Fight), folk (Hop Along) and rock (Dragonzord) projects; he also played guitar in Nouveau Riche with MC’s Dice Raw and Nikki Jean. “Paragraph Nights,” DRGN King’s debut, is willfully eclectic in the tradition of Gorillaz or Beck, veering from bubbly power-pop (“Wild Night”) or thumping rock (“Holy Ghost”) to loping, soulful synth-pop (“Warriors”). As Angelella sings of debauched nights on the town and their existential consequences, Reynolds layers the songs with buzzy synthesizers, loopy electronics, happy hand claps, and whooping backing vocals. Stuffed with musical ideas and unafraid of milking big, obvious hooks, it’s a messy, fun record. Three stars (Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer)