Recent Album Releases: New Zealand Guitar Quartet, Joel Karlsson, and Alan Rinehart
The NZGQ (L to R): Hill, Curry, Couch, Moriarty
Most weeks we take a peak at recent albums or sheet music releases. Here are three of the CDs that have come into the Classical Guitar office recently.
If you have a CD you’d like to submit to us, here’s our address:
501 Canal Blvd. suite J
Richmond, CA 94804-3505
Some of the albums we talk about online will be reviewed in the magazine, some not. But we want to at least mention most of them here. You can listen to some of these on various of streaming services, but we always encourage you to support the artists by actually buying anything you like! Obviously we cannot research and report every outlet or online business where these albums are sold, so check your favorite places that sell CDs and downloads!
To see our previous listings, scroll to the bottom of the page.
The Passing of a Black Star New Zealand Guitar Quartet
A couple of years ago, in writing about the New Zealand Quartet’s album The Storm, I noted that four of the large suites on the album had first been recorded by the LAGQ, who have, it’s fair to say, set the modern standard for guitar quartets (post-Los Romeros). Even then, the NZGQ—Owen Moriarty, Christopher Hill, Jane Curry, and John Couch—had its own identity, but with this magnificent new album, they prove without a doubt that they are now masters of their own destiny and in the top echelon of ensembles.
Once again, their recording is dominated by a diverse selection of multi-movement pieces, including a sparkling version of Bach’s instantly recognizable Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (the LAGQ recorded only the opening “Allegro” many years ago; this arrangement is by the NZGQ’s Owen Moriarty); contemporary composer Bruce Paine’s six-part Aortearoa Suite (that’s the Māori name for New Zealand), which has structural and specific allusions to Bach, yet still feels refreshingly contemporary with its jazz and folk flourishes; Albéniz’s wonderful Spanish Rhapsody Op. 70, arranged by for guitar quartet by Moriarty from a two-piano score (destined to become a guitar quartet classic; mark my words!); and NZ composer Craig Utting’s evocative Onslow Suite, written for three pianos and arranged by Moriarty—a bracing dash of modernity after the Bach, full of surprises and many moods and colors.
The one free-standing piece is the 10-minute title track, The Passing of a Black Star, written by Slovakian-born Australian composer/conductor/guitarist Marián Budoŝ as a tribute to rock star David Bowie, whose excellent final album, released two days before he died of cancer in January 2016, was called Blackstar. Budoŝ inserts fragments of a couple of songs from that Bowie album into the piece but surrounds it with original material—as he writes in the liner notes, “the piece is an homage to the eclectic qualities of Bowie’s final masterpiece, in which pop, rock, and jazz are interwoven with classic music techniques.” It’s exciting and unpredictable, which is a comment you could make about this superb album as a whole.
Aotearoa Suite (Paine); Spanish Rhapsody Op. 70 (Albeniz; arr. Moriarty); The Passing of a Black Star (Budos); Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 (Bach); Onslow Suite (Utting; arr. Moriarty)
I would describe Swedish guitarist Joel Karlsson‘s sonorous and mellow new album as more “folk” than traditionally “classical”; indeed, in tone and texture it sometimes reminds me a bit of the bucolic early Windham Hill steel-string guitar releases by Will Ackerman and Alex DeGrassi (though my limited exposure to Swedish folk music suggests that is probably a stronger influence than any American sources). My trusty Google Swedish-to-English translator provides a few clues, perhaps, to some of the images Karlsson is trying to put across: “in the grass” (I gräset), “on their own paths” (På egna stigar), “through the window” (Genom fönstret), “bright nights” (Ljusa nätter). Mostly Karlsson keeps the mood fairly light and upbeat; melody reigns supreme! (One exception to that is the darker-hued “Calling,” one of the strongest tracks on the album.) On a few numbers, Karlsson duets with flautist (and clarinetist) Pär Grebacken, and there are also two songs featuring Karlsson’s own pleasant singing (in Swedish). Trollsommar (you can hear it below) features double-tracked guitar to very nice effect, with some nice riffing and even a brief wide-open moment of jamming. All in all, it’s an agreeable outing.
Preludium No. 2; Nordisk suite No. 2; Silvervåg; Genom fönstret; Trollsommar; Ljusa nätter; Raft; I gräset; På egna stigar; Runsång No. 2; Calling; Last Dance
I will be the first to admit that I know very little about opera; it’s not among my favored styles of music, though I certainly appreciate the skills of everyone involved, and I’m still open to becoming a late-life convert. But I do love a beautiful melody, stirring themes, and can enjoy the drama of a great aria—particularly in instrumental form. Which is a good thing, since arranging opera pieces (vocal and instrumental) dominated so much of the writing for guitar during the 19th century.
Here, the fine Canadian guitarist Alan Rinehart, who has put out five CDs on his own and was previously associated with the Vancouver Guitar Quartet, presents six medleys/fantasies drawn from mid-19th century operas written by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and arranged for guitar by a Verdi contemporary, J.K. Mertz (1806–1856). As noted in Ravello Records’ description, “The six Verdi fantasies are taken from a larger Mertz collection of 34 similar pieces based on operas, called Opern-revue, Op. 8. These ‘revues’ were not unlike works for piano by composers such as Liszt, which were arrangements of or fantasies on popular operatic arias. Both these and Mertz’s revues responded to the popular demand of the opera ‘experience’ adapted for a small, private setting. Mertz’s revues are more ambitious, however—they adapt not just a single aria, but the entire opera, compressing a large scale, two- to three-hour production into a 10–15 minute piece medley for solo guitar.”
The results are spectacular! I literally knew exactly ONE theme on the album well—”La Donna é Mobile,” from Rigoletto—and a couple of others from Il Trovatore and La Traviata seemed somewhat familiar, but basically this was all new to me. And I was so impressed by the seamlessness of Mertz’s medleys—the tasteful juxtaposition of sweeping themes, arias, and assorted waltz and other “dance” segments. I never felt “cheated” by the relative brevity of each section, and the transitions all felt natural and not at all abrupt. Each piece seems like its own self-contained musical universe, with its own character, flow, drama and excitement. And as a guitar album, it covers an amazing amount of stylistic ground and demands much of the guitarist, with the multitude of tempo and rhythm changes in all six pieces, not to mention some very difficult tremolo passages in Ernani and Il Vesperi Siciliani (neither of which I’d ever heard of, but which ended up being two of my favorites, along with Il Travatore, which has a marvelously brooding, Beethovenian opening). Rinehart’s playing is crisp, confident, and passionate throughout—on the exciting runs and flourishes midway through Ernani, on the martial-sounding cadences in Nabucco, on the moving, elegiac passages near the end of Il Vesperi, etc. What a treat! I would think that people who actually know these operas would really enjoy this, and that for advanced players, any one of these pieces would be highly entertaining for a concert audience. Highly recommended!
Nabucco; Ernani; Rigoletto; Il Trovatore; La Traviata; Il Vesperi Siciliani