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Music reviews: Cinema, classics

A 'WTC' score and bouyant Mozart, Agricola and Boccherini

By Porter Anderson
CNN

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Sony Classical releases Craig Armstrong's soundtrack Tuesday for Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center."

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(CNN) -- The consolation of great music is gathered quickly this week, from one end of this hot summer to another, and just in time.

Soon, news of a formidably nourishing new CD from Joshua Bell, a spirited new offering from Audra McDonald and a stunning new Arvo Part recording with Paul Hillier at the helm.

But today, we prepare to look back and are fortunate to have Scottish composer Craig Armstrong at our sides.

'WTC': Craig Armstrong

Despite the flash he showed as producer of Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" and "Romeo and Juliet" scores, it's his shimmering soundtrack for director Phillip Noyce's 2002 "The Quiet American" for which most serious-music listeners know Craig Armstrong. And this is comforting news.

In that music, he perfectly captured the ache of a dreadfully American wrong in a far-off place. Here, he cinches the pain of a dreadful wrong in an American place.

While Oliver Stone's film, opening Wednesday, will be the subject of debate and anguish, Armstrong's brooding, searching music offers solace. Note the unadorned, utilitarian names of tracks ("Allison at the Stoplight," "Marine Arrives at Ground Zero"): There's no showboating here. Just a sonic sweep pulled right up into a sky once filled with danger by the soprano vocals of Susie Stevens Logan and Catherine O'Halloran.

Best of all, Armstrong builds in no desert-exotic menacing-Muslim bigotry -- and equally important, no pax-Americana riffs. What waves here is a musical flag of humanity, transcending nationalistic and faith-based bias.

Maybe that's the grace of a perspective not born in the U.S.A. Listen to this Scotsman's final piano solo: He plays it himself as a measured meditation on vulnerability, strength and the mystery of an event no one really may ever fully understand.

Mozart: Richard Egarr

It says something that as you walk down the Rue L'Opera from the Louvre in Paris, the busy windows of the Harmonia Mundi store you find on the left side of the avenue are focused on just one face. Pianist Richard Egarr -- admired by the 250th-Mozart-anniversary faithful for his collaborations with violinist Andrew Manze -- is now on his own.

Sitting at a Czech-built 1805 fortepiano (it has knee levers), Egarr entices you into a most intimate proximity to the master's compositions. In the Adagio in C Major (K. 356), for example, he's working on a piece originally meant for the glass harmonica, a largely forgotten instrument today. The exercise of this recital is far from obscure -- you'll recognize the melody of that Adagio, the CD-opening Fantasie in D Minor (K. 397) and other pieces.

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Pianist Richard Egarr plays a 19th century fortepiano on a new CD released Tuesday y Harmonia Mundi.

Egarr, fully up to the challenge of the "free" music Mozart wrote to allow an instrumentalist some room to move within the structure of the pieces, writes almost as elegantly as he plays.

"Mozart is ultimately fascinating and impossible to conquer," he writes in his excellent liner notes (presented in English, French and German). "Only ... complete acceptance and fearless emotional exposure can allow the performer to understand and communicate his music."

Egarr seems just as fearless and sensitive as he exhorts others to be to this music. The result may be as close as we might ever get to sitting in a chair just behind Wolfgang Amadeus in a quiet room in the 18th century.

Agricola: Fretwork & Fitch

Fretwork is a viol ensemble based in London. Joined here by countertenor Michael Chance, the group marks the 500th anniversary of the 1506 death of composer Alexander Agricola with a new recording of some rather idiosyncratic writings.

It bothers few of us today that Ghent-born Agricola tended to drive off the road a bit, in the musical terms of the day, looking for off-key moments, making his work livelier than some patrons might have liked.

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The ensemble Fretwork is heard on a new CD of Agricola music released Tuesday by Harmonia Mundi.

What we get from the six-member Fretwork ensemble and Chance is a mostly text-less tour of a career that bounced from the French court to Italy and Spain, movement reflected in the gamy, boisterous life behind new works based on Agricola by French scholar-composer Fabrice Fitch.

In two of his "Agricologies" -- "Agricola I: Comme femme A2/4" and "Agricola III / Obrecht canon I: De tous biens plaine A4" -- you hear a playful amplification of the bounding unpredictability that those who know Agricola love.

Chance, for his part, proves himself again one of a handful of masters today in the countertenor form, his "Se je fais bien" and "En actendant" particularly agile, his eerie tones warm and comely.

Boccherini: Jordi Savall

Rivalling Harmonia Mundi for beauty of packaging and quality of presentation, Alia Vox in May released one of the most exuberantly satisfying CDs of the year. Catalan composer and viol player Jordi Savall here conducts a spritely tour mostly from one decade in the Tuscan-born Luigi Boccherini's (1743-1805) output.

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Jordi Savall leads the Concert of Nations ensemble in music of Luigi Boccherini on a CD from Alia Vox.

The years 1780 to 1790 saw his move to the court of Madrid and the death of his first wife -- and the creation of some extraordinary bright music.

In fact, the third movement, "Grave assai-Fandango," of the Quintetto No. 4 "Fandango" (G. 448) seems to be a resounding "so there" hurled back at a period of such struggle from around 1798. As guitar and strings spiral into a higher and higher dance of joy, Jose de Udaeta's castanets scamper across the sheen of the musical curtain opened by Le Concert des Nations.

As richly as he spun the Rococo resonance of his age, Boccherini is credited by some with approaching real Romanticism and you hear the stately, supple proof of this in such moments as the gorgeous release in the strings of the first movement (Allegro moderato) of the "Sinfonia in re minore," Opus 37 (G.517), of 1787, rightly called the "Grande."

This CD is Grammy-worthy stuff, and easily the best way to kick your way right through a Madrid-hot August toward the comforts, musical and climatic, of the autumn to come.

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