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Poulenc, Palestrina And Two-By-Fours: New Classical Albums

This beautiful wooden box houses the new Michael Gordon piece, <em>Timber</em>, scored for six percussionists and six two-by-fours.
Cantaloupe Records
This beautiful wooden box houses the new Michael Gordon piece, Timber, scored for six percussionists and six two-by-fours.

The news may bring us stories of bankrupt symphony orchestras, floundering opera companies and shuttered record stores, but musicians keep making excellent recordings, often releasing them on small labels. That's the thread running through the broad range of classical albums that NPR Music's Tom Huizenga spins for Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. The independent, Paris-based Zig Zag Territories label has released a sparkling new recording of Poulenc's Concerto for Two Pianos with the innovative original instruments band Anima Eterna. The acclaimed British choir called The Sixteen has started up its own label and an ambitious Palestrina project. And then there's the packaging (by the Cantaloupe label) for Michael Gordon's new work Timber. The music is nothing more than six guys pounding on two-by-fours (it sounds surprisingly sublime), and the CD comes in a stunning wooden box. Hats off to the small labels who continue to keep music vibrantly alive.

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Poulenc, Palestrina And Two-By-Fours: New Classical Albums

Poulenc: Concerto For Two Pianos (excerpt)

Zig Zag

From 'Poulenc: Concerto pour Deux Pianos et Orchestre; Concert Champêtre; Suite Française'

By Claire Chevallier

From 'Poulenc: Concerto pour Deux Pianos et Orchestre; Concert Champêtre; Suite Française'

By Claire Chevallier

Although this concerto was written in 1932, I love how contemporary it sounds, especially the opening, with its Steve Reich-like interlocking piano parts. The old saying goes: In Poulenc there is something of the monk and something of the rascal. And in this concerto we definitely have "the rascal." He jumps from a mock dancehall style, complete with maracas, to mock seriousness in the wink of an eye. The recording is by the brilliant Anima Eterna, led by Jos Van Immerseel. They use a pair of vintage Erard concert grands, pianos dating from around 1905 or so, the kind of instruments that Poulenc would have played.

Palestrina: Vulnerasti cor meum

Coro Records

From 'Palestrina Vol. 1'

By The Sixteen

The excellent British choir called The Sixteen, led by Harry Christophers, keeps making great records. Here, they begin a multi-volume project devoted to the music of Palestrina, the man who, as legend has it, saved church music. Roman Catholic bigwigs on the Council of Trent wanted to revert to Gregorian Chant as the officially sanctioned style of church music. But a private performance, in 1565, of Palestrina's multi-layered, polyphonic music convinced them otherwise. Along with the Missa Assumpta, The Sixteen performs a selection of Palestrina's gorgeous settings of the Song of Songs.

Michael Gordon: Timber (excerpt)

Cover for <em>Timber</em>
Canteloupe Records
Cover for Timber

From 'Timber'

By Slagwerk Den Haag

Who would have thought that six guys banging on Home Depot-styled lumber could sound so amazing? In Michael Gordon's new appropriately titled piece Timber, six two-by-fours, cut to varying lengths make a surprisingly resonant sound, rich with a shifting field of overtones that in itself produces a kind of melody. It's the craziest thing, and it's magical and meditative.

Also available at iTunes

Hans Gal: Symphony No. 3 (excerpt)

Avie Records

From 'Hans Gál: Symphony No. 3; Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 3 'Rhenish''

By Orchestra of the Swan

The Austrian-born composer Hans Gal has been way off the radar screen until just recently. His Symphony No. 3 languished unplayed for 55 years. Like so many European composers, Gal had to flee the Nazis, eventually landing in Scotland. So hats off to conductor Kenneth Woods and his Orchestra of the Swan who have been making a case for Gal's elegantly built orchestral pieces which look back fondly to the German romantic era of Schumann, Brahms and Richard Strauss. Here's hoping this is the beginning of a substantial Gal revival.

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.