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Lead Belly, Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection (Smithsonian Folkways, 5 CDs and book, $89.98) – Lead Belly was a powerful singer, with an unmistakable sound on the 12-string guitar; he also wrote memorable songs which are still sung. Lead Belly died in 1949, yet music, as well as his dramatic biography and public personae, are still worthy of study. Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection tells his story with five CDs, packaged in an LP-sized, 140-page book with extensive notes by the co-producers, scholar Robert Santelli and Folkways archivist Jeff Place. The CDs are thematically arranged—with the first three discs arranging his best-known songs, as well as displaying the immense breadth of Lead Belly’s repertoire: play songs, prison and work songs, topical political tunes, blues and gospel. The fourth and fifth CDs include rare radio shows he did on WNYC, and his last home recordings. The Smithsonian Channel also has been showing a companion documentary, Legend of Lead Belly.
NOTE: On Saturday, April 25, there will be an all-star tribute to the music of Lead Belly at the Kennedy Center.
Chamber Orchestras & Chamber Music
The Knights, The Ground Beneath Our Feet (Warner Classics, $16.99) – The Knights are an orchestral collective started by brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen (also the founders of the Brooklyn Rider Quartet). Their new album (recorded at Dumbarton Oaks in October, 2013) is creatively programmed around a “celebration of the concerto grosso”—a conversation between two or more instruments and the larger ensemble. Bach’s Violin and Oboe Concerto leads to Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto—the ensemble was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the piece, which premiered at the estate, commissioned by Mildred Barnes Bliss. The Knights bring the form up to the present with Duet for Two Violins and Strings by Steve Reich, Concerto for Santur, Violin and Orchestra by Colin Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei (both members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble), and a collaborative piece, …The Ground Beneath Our Feet, which has variations on a ciaccona “ground bass line” by Baroque composer Tarquinio Merula. This is a wonderful souvenir of an evening of concerti old and new.
Aurora Orchestra, Roadtrip (Warner Classics, $16.99) – The Aurora Orchestra are a British ensemble, who have put together a wonderful celebration of American music. The centerpieces are John Adams’s Chamber Symphony, and Aaron Copland, Appalachian Spring (in its original version for 13 Instruments), as well as Charles Ives’s “The Housatonic at Stockbridge” from Three Places in New England. Interspersed are three songs arranged by Nico Muhly, and sung by Sam Amidon and Dawn Landes—the folk songs “Reynardine,” and “The Brown Girl,” and ending with Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones.”
Menahem Pressler & Quatuor Ebène, A 90th Birthday Celebration: Live in Paris (Erato, CD & DVD, $27.98) – Pianist Menahem Pressler (long associated with the Beaux Arts Trio) is still playing with his infectious enthusiasm. A 90th birthday concert, recorded live with the Ebène String Quartet, includes Dvořák’s Piano Quintet in A major, Op. 81, and the Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667 (“Trout”). Also included is a DVD of the concert with additional performances—some Schubert songs with tenor Christoph Prégardien, and some encores presenting the quartet (in Debussy) and Pressler solo, playing Chopin.
Positive Force: More Than a Witness: 30 Years of Punk Politics in Action (PM Press, DVD, $19.95) – DC’s punk music scene—with groups including Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Bad Brains and Fugazi—was intimately entwined with the activist collective Positive Force, co-founded by Mark Andersen (who also co-wrote a DC punk history, Dance of Days). Many of the concerts over the years—held in churches and small clubs—were political benefits organized by Positive Force for organizations working with issues ranging from homelessness to environmentalism. Director Robin Bell’s documentary, Positive Force, has great archival footage of live performances and new interviews covering 30 years of activism. Also included are other documentaries on the movement, from 1991 to 2014, with bonus performances.