It’s a rather harmless irony that we tend to greet this annual influx of newness with the same ol’ bouquet of spring themes. Instinctually, we turn to the standard seasonal reveries of Haydn, Vivialdi and Glazunov; those sturdy vernal symphonies of Beethoven (his “Pastoral”) and Schumann (his “Spring”); and familiar petal-plucking daydreams a la Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.”
Dig a bit below this topsoil and you’ll find loads of odes to spring. There’s Copland’s poetic paean “Appalachian Spring”; the limpid trickle of Grieg’s “Til Varen” (“To Spring”); the undersung Lili Boulanger’s sensuous “D’un matin de printemps” (“Of a Spring Morning”); and Glazunov’s lesser-known stand-alone “Spring” (which he called a “symphonic picture”).
Any of these could be the seeds of a substantial spring playlist. And below, find a few more suggestions that are helping me hear the season anew.
Astor Piazzolla, 'Primavera Porteña'
We begin here because if you’ve never heard the Argentine composer and bandoneon master Astor Piazzolla’s suite of seasonal tangos, “Estaciones Porteñas” (i.e. “The Four Seasons of Buenos Aires”) you should do that right now. My favorite version is a hard-to-find but highly YouTube-able 1970 recording from the Teatro Regina in Buenos Aires, where Piazzolla performed the suite in full (and on fire) with his Quinteto Astor Piazzolla. (It’s outrageously lovely.) But recently, I’ve grown fond of a version just released by classical guitarist Stephanie Jones, who strips the tango down to an exquisitely lucid solo. It appears with the other “Estaciones” and works by other South American composers on her new album, “Open Sky.”
Germaine Tailleferre, 'Ballade'
There’s nothing explicitly spring about “Ballade,” a short orchestral work completed in 1922 by the Parisian composer Germain Tailleferre — the only female member of “Les Six,” critic Henri Collet’s moniker for a somewhat arbitrarily grouped circle of composers working in Montparnasse in the ’20s. But with its twists and bends, its sudden bursts of color, its impressionistic stretches and winks of dissonance (like the unknowably pretty chord that cuts like a sunrise through the final movement and launches its yawning resolution), “Ballade” feels like wandering through an enchanted garden on the brink of bursting — or a particularly vivid dream of one. It’s hard to come by a recording, but Florian Uhlig’s 2017 performance with the Deutsche Radio Philharmonie Saarbrücken Kaiserslautern feels essential in his celebration of every detail.
Claude Debussy, 'Printemps'
Since we’re already in Paris in the spring, let’s check in with Claude. He composed his “Printemps” (“Springtime”) for orchestra and wordless choir in 1887, with the idea of creating “not a descriptive ‘Printemps,’ but a human one.” “I should like to express the slow and labored birth of beings and things in nature,” he wrote, “their gradual blossoming, and finally the joy of being born into some new life.” As it turns out, “Printemps” would have to be reborn, as the manuscript was devoured by a fire at a Paris bindery. In 1914, Debussy supervised Henri Büsser in creating two new versions of the work — one for orchestra and another for four-handed piano, to which I’ve grown quite attached. In the four hands of Swiss piano duo Adrienne Soos and Ivo Haag, Debussy’s colors are lifted, and the piece tilts around in the light like a prism.
Florence Price, 'Fantasie Nègre No. 3'
Elsewhere in delicate restorations is a newly restored piece of music history. In 2019, the pianist, musicologist and Florence Price scholar Samantha Ege (currently Lord Crewe junior research fellow in music at Lincoln College, University of Oxford) visited the Florence Price archives at the University of Arkansas, determined to locate the composer’s four “Fantasie Nègre” solo pieces for piano, never published in Price’s lifetime. “The histories of Black women composers from the past are often such a challenge to recuperate,” Ege tells me in an email, “because of the lack of publishing opportunities in their time, the scant documentation of their achievements, and their absence in institutional archives.” The resultant stunner of a collection, “The Piano Music of Florence Price,” collects (for the first time) all four Fantasies, as well as a trio of untitled sketches and another cluster of “Snapshots” — with all but the first of the Fantasies drawn from archives discovered in 2009 at Price’s summer home in St. Anne, Ill. These Fantasies capture Price at her most expressive, and this performance finds Ege at her most intuitive, especially when it comes to the Third, which Ege reassembled from its two extant pages and loose pages that beckoned to her from a different key. “The twists and turns that I had tried to make sense of in my head when I was in the archives came together once I sat at the piano,” she says. Similarly, Price’s music — its pride, elegance, folk echoes and blue hues — fills some essential gaps in the story of American music.
Ottorino Respighi, '6 Pieces for Piano' P. 44: No. 3. Notturno. Lento
The harp is having a moment right now, and I am very much here for it. Young harpists like Parker Ramsay, Brandee Younger and Madison Calley are finding new expressive and interpretive possibilities for the instrument — as well as thousands of followers. Lately, I’ve been caught in a loop listening to Magdalena Hoffmann, principal harpist of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and her beguiling transcription of one of Respighi’s short piano pieces (“Notturno”) — likely to be a centerpiece on her night-centered Deutsche Grammophon debut, due out next January. As with Ramsay’s recent interpretation of the “Goldberg Variations,” Hoffman’s harp lends the piece an entirely different aura — melodic pluck hovering in vaporous harmony.
Jonathan Harvey, 'Bird Concerto with Pianosong'
And since I’ve not included anything yet to tickle the literalists or enrage the commentariat, it doesn’t get much more springy than “Bird Concerto with Pianosong,” composed (or hatched?) by the late, great British experimentalist Jonathan Harvey. An alum of Pierre Boulez’s avant-garde music research instituteIRCAM, Harvey explored (among other things) the use of electronics and the algorithmic application of speech analysis tools to the creation of music. His landmark 2008 work in this vein, “Speakings,” was composed to evoke “an orchestra learning to speak, like a baby with its mother.” In his “Bird Concerto,” sampled birdsong mingles with music that mimics the sonic signatures of our feathered friends, but also the “quasi-electronic frequency modulation” of their cries. Under the fleet fingers of pianist Hideki Nagano (who recorded the piece with the London Sinfonietta in 2012), it’s an ornithophile’s fever dream come true. “If the songs and objects of the score can bring some inkling of how it might feel to be a human in the mind of a bird, or vice versa,” he wrote, “then I would be happy.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this story misidentified the arranger of the Third “Fantasie Nègre” as composer Florence Price. Pianist and Price scholar Samantha Ege reassembled the work.