Recent classical CDs include a bounty of fresh new sounds, voices

Recent months have brought a bumper crop of new recordings of unusual 20th and 21st century classical works for chamber ensembles. The composers range from established figures to promising unknowns of the younger generation. It should come as no surprise that it's the small, feisty independent labels that are bringing us this bounty, as opposed to the majors with their fixation on big names and endless retreads of standard repertory.

No indie classical producer has done more to raise the market profile of important new contemporary voices than Manfred Eicher, the ever-enterprising founder-director of the ECM New Series label. He has got several uncommonly interesting CDs out this summer, including "String Paths," the first full collection of works for small ensemble by Dobrinka Tabakova.

Anyone who admires the fusion of ancient and modern in the music of Arvo Part will respond to the works of the young, Bulgarian-born, English-educated composer. In Tabakova's Concerto for Cello and Strings, Kristina Blaumane's cello moves across a landscape of increasingly luminous timbres, spiraling upward at the ecstatic close. The tonal-modal intensities are at once piercingly sweet and pungently dissonant in the string trio "Insights" and the string septet "Such different paths," variously played by violinist Janine Jansen and several of Tabakova's former conservatory colleagues, with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra.

The past also converses with the present in the Dowland Project's fourth ECM release, "Night Sessions." As the consort's director, tenor John Potter, explains in his liner note, their latest collection of improvisations and ruminations on early music came about because of a whim of Eicher's. At a late-night wrap party following a recording session in an Austrian country church, the producer suggested Potter and friends go back into the church and essentially wing it for the microphones.

They did, and the results represent a marvelous flight of time-travel across entire centuries and cultures – post-crossover riffs on everything from a Portuguese pilgrim song to Byzantine chant to Italian and French lute fantasies. If you've never heard soprano saxophonist John Surman's imaginative dialogues with folk fiddle, ancient plucked instruments, modern strings, winds and percussion, you're in for quite an aural odyssey, just the ticket for late-night listening.

Also from ECM comes a disc that couples the two string quartets by Gyorgy Ligeti with the famed Adagio from Samuel Barber's String Quartet. Ligeti was the most important figure in Hungarian music since the death of Bela Bartok, and his quartets have taken their rightful place in the active repertory. The Budapest-based Keller Quartet pounces on the music's mingled frenzy and stasis with finely controlled gusto, while its ascetic treatment of the Barber Adagio draws that neo-romantic masterpiece closer to Ligeti's sound-world, justifying the unlikely coupling.

As spare and withdrawn as Ligeti's music is dense and rhetorical, that of the influential American modernist Morton Feldman spreads gnomic gestures across vast open canvases. In a new ECM CD of one of his seminal works, "Violin and Orchestra" (1979), violinist Carolin Widmann is joined by conductor Emilio Pomarico and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra for a 50-minute journey through an astringent sonic landscape. Feldman freezes time more subtly than any composer I know. If you've got the time and patience, his piece makes for compelling listening.

By coincidence, Lera Auerbach's "24 Preludes" for cello and piano also clocks in at 50 minutes, although the Russian-born American composer works on a smaller, more intimate scale than Feldman's epic work. Her 1999 cycle of virtuoso vignettes, all of them under four minutes in length, ranges widely in character, from grotesque dances to a requiem-like closing prelude, and enlists the full lexicon of modern string and piano techniques.

I would not hesitate in calling "24 Preludes" a major addition to the contemporary chamber repertory. It is played with tremendous bite and concentration by the composer and her duo partner, the splendid, Chicago-born cellist Ani Aznavoorian, on a recent Cedille disc, "Celloquy." The companion work is Auerbach's somber Cello Sonata (2002), an equally absorbing piece that rises to tragic intensity in the artists' capable hands.

The adventuresome string quartet Brooklyn Rider made its Ravinia debut earlier this month, and members Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen (violins) and Nicholas Cords (viola) are returning to the festival roster in various other capacities later this summer – Gandelsman as part of the Bennett Gordon Hall recital series, Jacobsen and Cords as members of the chamber ensemble The Knights.

Brooklyn Rider's latest album, "A Walking Fire" (Mercury Classics), holds newish chamber works inspired by Romanian Gypsy folklore (the composer Ljova's wildly colorful "Culai") and Persian paintings (Colin Jacobsen's fantastical "Three Miniatures"). Rounding out this attractive travelogue is a modern classic, Bela Bartok's String Quartet No. 2. If you're a fan of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, you should enjoy this album of accessible exotica as well. (Note that Jacobsen; his brother Eric Jacobsen, the quartet's cellist; and Cords also perform with the Silk Road group.)

No living composer from Finland has achieved Kaija Saariaho's international success. Ondine has released the first volume in a survey of Saariaho's chamber works for strings, persuasively dispatched by the Finnish string quartet Meta4, with assisting artists Anna Laakso, piano, and Marko Myohanen, electronics.

Along with shorter pieces for solo violin, solo cello, violin and piano, and viola and electronics, the collection contains "Nymphea" for quartet and live electronics (1987), a key work in Saariaho's imposing output. This highly charged yet poetic musical canvas uses acoustical and synthesized sounds, including the human voice, to depict nature in a continual state of becoming -- scraping noises that evoke the breaking of huge ice blocks on a northern river, a rising and falling rhythm that suggests the rocking of waves, and so forth. Like everything else on this CD, "Nymphea" is strong stuff that commands your attention.

Last but hardly least, from Naxos comes a fascinating recording by the New Zealand String Quartet of string quartet music by modern Asian composers – Zhou Long, Chinary Ung, Gao Ping, Toru Takemitsu and Tan Dun. Their diverse, ear-and-mind-grabbing approaches to instrumental sound and expression set these five works well above your typical East-meets-West fusion fare. In all, an intelligently planned, persuasively executed program.

Chicago a cappella season

The vocal ensemble Chicago a cappella will celebrate its 20th anniversary season in 2013-14 with four programs under founder-artistic director Jonathan Miller and guest music directors.

Opening the season Oct. 12-19 will be a 20th anniversary retrospective including a commissioned work by Paul Crabtree. The group's annual "Holidays a cappella" program, Dec. 1-14, will be under the direction of Anne Heider.

Miller will preside over the Feb. 15-23 concerts, an assortment of Jewish a cappella songs from around the world. Closing the season April 11-19 will be a program tracing the flowering of gospel music, from its Chicago origins to the present. Rollo Dilworth will direct.

Performances will be given in Chicago, Evanston, Naperville, Wheaton, Oak Park and River Forest; 773-281-7820 or chicagoacappella.org.

Lyric single tickets go on sale

Single tickets to all Lyric Opera performances in the upcoming season will go on sale Thursday, online as well as at the box office.

As previously announced, the company's 22-week 2013-14 season will comprise 67 performances of eight operas. Productions new or new to Chicago are Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," Wagner's "Parsifal," Verdi's "La Traviata," Strauss' "Die Fledermaus," Rossini's "The Barber of Seville," Dvorak's "Rusalka" and Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito." The season opener, Verdi's "Otello," will be the sole revival. Lyric's 59th season will run Oct. 5-March 23 at the Civic Opera House.

Post-season performances of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "The Sound of Music" are April 25-May 11. Remaining tickets also are on sale for a concert by soprano Renee Fleming and tenor Jonas Kaufmann, March 19; "The Family Barber" (a kid-oriented show based on "The Barber of Seville"), March 22; and a recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman, April 6.

For further information, call 312-332-2244, or visit lyricopera.org.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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