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John Fleming's CD picks: The Philadelphia Orchestra, Joshua Bell, John Adams

Philadelphia Orchestra

Album: The Original Jacket Collection: The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy, Conductor (Sony/BMG)

In stores: Now

Why we care: There's consternation in Philadelphia because its orchestra has dropped from critics' lists of the world's greatest orchestras (the latest, in December's Gramophone magazine, ranks the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam No. 1). Here you can revisit the orchestra's glory days under Eugene Ormandy in a 10-CD boxed set of historic reissues.

Why we like it: Ormandy cultivated a sumptuous string sound for "the Fabulous Philadelphians.''

Reminds us of: When classical music was king

Download these: Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra

Grade: A

Passing Strange

Album: Passing Strange (Ghostlight Records)

In stores: Now

Why we care: The rock musical gets chopped and channeled by Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics, co-composed the music, plays a slashing guitar and is the narrator. Part concert, part play, Passing Strange is about a middle-class black guy from Los Angeles who sets out for the hashish dens of Europe in search of authenticity.

Why we like it: Unlike most rock musicals, this one really rocks. The lyrics are fresh ("Music is the freight train in which God travels'') and erudite (references to James Baldwin and Josephine Baker).

Reminds us of: Arthur Lee and Love

Download these: Church Blues Revelation/Freight Train, Merci Beaucoup, M. Godard

Grade: B+

Joshua Bell

Album: Vivaldi: The Four Seasons (Sony)

In stores: Now

Why we care: There are hundreds of recordings of The Four Seasons, but this one is as luxe as it gets, with an immaculate performance by Bell and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. A bonus is the violinist's soulful rendition, with harpsichordist John Constable, of Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata.

Why we like it: Fits the bill nicely for a fail-safe stocking stuffer, matching a big-name soloist with standard repertoire that belongs in every collection. The CD comes with plenty of glam photos of Bell and Vivaldi's sonnets to the seasons printed on illustrated cards. Just because the packaging is a bit grandiose doesn't mean the performance isn't sublime.

Reminds us of: NPR theme music

Download these: Opening movement of Winter, slow movement of Spring, Devil's Trill Sonata

Grade: B+

John Adams

Album: A Flowering Tree (Nonesuch)

In stores: Now

Why we care: Adams is the American composer of the moment, with his opera about the first atomic bomb, Doctor Atomic, receiving productions around the world, and his memoirs, Hallelujah Junction, published in October. Here is his latest collaboration with Peter Sellars, co-author with the composer of the libretto, adapted from an Indian folk tale.

Why we like it: This rather simple production (only three principal singers) feels more like an oratorio than an opera, but the story of a girl named Kumudha (soprano Jessica Rivera) being transformed into a tree makes for a beguiling piece of earth music.

Reminds us of: Mozart's opera The Magic Flute (Adams' inspiration)

Download these: Kumudha's Prayer

Grade: B

Renee Fleming

Album: Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs; Signature Roles (Decca)

In stores: Now

Why we care: Fleming returns to one of her early triumphs, the luminous song cycle of Strauss' old age, which she first recorded in 1995 with Christoph Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony. Here the soprano has superior partners in Christian Thielemann and the Munich Philharmonic. For Fleming fanatics, a special edition two-CD set also features her in arias such as Dvorak's Song of the Moon and the Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin.

Why we like it: Fleming is in fantastic voice in what has become the cornerstone of her repertory. She also performs excerpts from Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Agyptische Helena and four orchestral songs.

Reminds us of: Kiri Te Kanawa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf

Download these: Fruhling, Im Abendrot, Verfuhrung

Grade: A

Anne-Marie McDermott

Album: Gershwin: Complete Music for Piano and Orchestra (Bridge)

In stores: Now

Why we care: It's not only useful to have Gershwin's four works for piano and orchestra on one CD, but the performance by soloist McDermott and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Justin Brown conducting, is splendid. The recording was made in the acoustically ideal Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas.

Why we like it: McDermott gets things rolling right along with Rhapsody in Blue, and the pianist never lets up in runs at a breakneck pace (as Gershwin preferred) through the Second Rhapsody, I Got Rhythm Variations and the Concerto in F. All in all, it's a definitive slice of musical Americana.

Reminds us of: Manhattan, United Airlines, Ethel Merman

Download these: I Got Rhythm Variations, Concerto in F

Grade: A

John Fleming's CD picks: The Philadelphia Orchestra, Joshua Bell, John Adams 12/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2008 10:12am]

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