Daniel Stephen Johnson
January 7, 2013

Northern Lights Electric, the title track on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's 24th(!) self-released recording in five years, demonstrates just how finely matched the Project is to the album's star composer, Paul Moravec. The polished sort of pleaser that could effortlessly raise the curtain on a subscription concert, this is a symphonic poem for people who love symphonic poems.

But the magic doesn't work if the playing and recording aren't just as highly polished — it demands the stately winds, dramatic percussion and rich strings of a major symphony orchestra, and the warm, reverberant acoustic the technicians at a first-rate classical label can create.

As it turns out, BMOP is both. A top-notch ensemble, BMOP and its music director Gil Rose are handily filling the gap left by the once-major symphony orchestras that used to record new American music, and the in-house BMOP/sound label is committed to lavishly packaged, gorgeously recorded issues.

As always, the soloists BMOP accompanies here are stars of their respective instrument. With his Clarinet Concerto, Moravec has built soloist David Krakauer a showcase for his considerable klezmer muscle, and Krakauer rises to the opportunity with thrillingly piquant, idiosyncratic playing. Pathbreaking cellist Matt Haimovitz commits fully and deeply to Montserrat: Concerto for Cello and Orchestra. Moravec's homage to Casals, not only pulling off the virtuosic passages with the requisite panache but bringing a transcendent lyricism to the concerto's meditative finale.

It is inevitable that a project this ambitious should suffer the occasional misstep. Does BMOP's navigation of Sempre Diritto! ("Straight Ahead") lack the sharp angles it needs to make clear musical sense of the piece's dark, labyrinthine counterpoint, or does the piece simply overstay its welcome? Either way, the destination doesn't quite seem worth the trek.

But the lapse is forgivable. The picture that BMOP is rapidly piecing together, with the release of each new recording, is starting to look like the single most important discography in contemporary American orchestral music. Northern Lights Electric, a brilliantly recorded survey of a vital composer, is an essential piece in that puzzle.