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John Fleming's classical music picks: Sharon Isbin, Tori Amos, Apollo's Fire and Joseph Calleja

Sharon Isbin

Album: Guitar Passions (Sony Classical)

Why we care: Isbin is not only a marvelous classical guitarist but also an inventive deviser of crossover concept albums. Her latest joins Isbin with "friends" such as rock guitarists Steve Vai and Steve Morse (of the Dixie Dregs), jazz man Stanley Jordan and, surprisingly, Nancy Wilson of Heart, who sings and plays guitar on Dreamboat Annie.

Why we like it: You've got to hear a version of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez that goes from classical to bossa nova to rock.

Reminds us of: Isbin's splendid Journey to the Amazon, her collaboration with Brazilian percussionist Gaudencio Thiago de Mello. On Guitar Passions, de Mello plays on Carinhoso and O Presidente, which he composed and also features Paul Winter on soprano sax.

Download these: Porro, Allegro

Grade: A-

Tori Amos

Album: Night of Hunters (Deutsche Grammophon)

Why we care: This is billed as Amos' classical album, a song cycle inspired by the likes of Schubert's Winterreise. The singer-songwriter-pianist is joined by a chamber orchestra on 14 songs about a breakup that involves a shape-shifting creature named Annabelle (voiced by her 11-year-old daughter, Natashya, who is especially good in Job's Coffin), a trip back in time to ancient Ireland and a Fire Muse.

Why we like it: Amos' devoted fans will probably go along with the Druidic mumbo-jumbo, though they may miss the rock rhythms. Classical listeners will enjoy her piano playing, but there's a sameness to the overall sound that becomes tiresome.

Reminds us of: Enya, Kate Bush

Download these: Shattering Sea, Your Ghost

Grade: B-

Apollo's Fire

Album: Come to the River (Avie)

Why we care: Directed by harpsichord player Jeannette Sorrell, the Cleveland-based Apollo's Fire is known for its recordings of Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart and Telemann. But here the group delves into traditional American music that you'd hear at a barn dance or backwoods Baptist revival.

Why we like it: As Sorrell puts it in the liner notes, "Our band is a slightly luxurious version of the Old-Time bands that would have played these tunes," and the level of musicianship is high for what is often performed pretty scrappily. The shape-note hymns, such as Wondrous Love, are beautifully strange.

Reminds us of: Norman Blake, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Download these: Ways of the World, Three Ravens, Wild Bill Jones, Wondrous Love

Grade: A

Joseph Calleja

Album: The Maltese Tenor (Decca)

Why we care: For pure sonic splendor, Calleja can't be beat in the CD's opening scenes from La Boheme, in which he is joined by Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak. The tenor also shows dramatic panache in Sento avvampar nell'anima, Adorno's big aria in Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, a role that drew an outpouring of praise when he performed it at London's Covent Garden in 2010.

Why we like it: You'd expect a tenor from Malta to be expert in Italian repertory, but Calleja also shines in French arias, such as Eisenach's legend from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman, and a duet with Kurzak from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles. Marco Armiliato conducts L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

Reminds us of: Jussi Bjorling (for vibrato)

Download this: O soave fanciulla

Grade: B+

John Fleming's classical music picks: Sharon Isbin, Tori Amos, Apollo's Fire and Joseph Calleja 12/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 3, 2011 3:30am]

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