1. Arts & Entertainment

John Fleming's classical music picks: Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk, Susanna Phillips, Pacifica Quartet, John Noel Roberts

Joshua Bell and Jeremy Denk

Album: French Impressions (Sony Classical)

Why we care: This is one of those classical releases that draws a large audience because Bell is one of the best-known soloists around nowadays, probably the heir apparent to Itzhak Perlman in terms of violin virtuosity and appeal. And Denk is an up-and-coming pianist, not to mention a witty writer (he does the liner notes; his blog is at

Why we like it: Bell and Denk play three great sonatas by Saint-Saens, Franck and Ravel that, as Denk puts it in describing the opening of the Franck sonata, "express what makes French music French: sounds that float, hover, harmony like a scent, a perfume evaporating into air."

Reminds us of: Impressionist paintings

Download this: The Franck sonata

Grade: A

Susanna Phillips

Album: Paysages (Bridge)

Why we care: Phillips, a young soprano from Alabama, makes an impressive solo recording debut with a program of Debussy's Ariettes oubliees, the Poemes pour Mi of Messiaen and four Fauré songs. Her excellent, supportive partner is pianist Myra Huang.

Why we like it: I won't deny that French vocal music is something of an acquired taste (for me anyway), but the Phillips-Huang recital could make a believer of anyone. The singer brings lustrous tone and crisp diction to the songs, and she also supplies her own English translations in the liner notes.

Reminds us of: Symbolist poetry

Download these: Chevaux de Bois (Debussy), Paysage (Messiaen), Apres un reve (Faure)

Grade: A-

Pacifica Quartet

Album: The Soviet Experience: String Quartets by Shostakovich and His Contemporaries (Cedille)

Why we care: The Pacifica Quartet is an enterprising group, with a Grammy-winning series of recordings of Elliot Carter's complex five-quartet cycle for Naxos.

Why we like it: The Shostakovich string quartets perfectly match his symphonies: There are 15 of each. The glib analysis is that the symphonies reflect the composer's outer life, the quartets, his inner life. I don't know if that is true, but certainly the string quartets are less familiar, which makes this two-CD set, the first of a four-volume series, a valuable release. It contains Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 8, plus String Quartet No. 13 of Nikolai Miaskovsky.

Reminds us of: Beethoven's string quartets

Download this: String Quartet No. 5

Grade: A-

John Noel Roberts

Album: Alec Wilder: Music for Piano (Albany)

Why we care: Alec Wilder (1907-1980) was an American composer who didn't readily fit into a category with his songs, chamber music, opera and musicals. As Robert Levy says in the liner notes, "The classical world thought he had too much jazz to be classical, and the jazz world thought there was too much classical." Wilder also wrote a useful book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950.

Why we like it: Roberts plays Wilder's solo piano works, 44 tracks of delicate miniatures. Sonata-Fantasy is a four-movement gem.

Reminds us of: Mabel Mercer (the peerless cabaret singer who performed a lot of Wilder's songs)

Download this: Sonata-Fantasy

Grade: B+