3 Great Guitar Duo Albums: Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan, Duo Kossler, and Duo Tandem
Adam Cicchillitti (L) and Steve Cowan
REVIEWS BY BLAIR JACKSON
Focus Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan
This duo effort from two of Canada’s most skilled and forward-thinking classical guitarists—Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan—presents five modern pieces by Canadian composers and about a thousand different moods and feelings spread across this vast and diverse audio landscape. OK, I’m exaggerating, but the fact is there is a LOT going on here, and each of the works feels like its own complex world.
It starts out strong with a tremendously compelling two-movement work by Harry Stafylakis called Focus, which opens with the duo calmly trading Spanish-flavored strums that become slightly more dissonant as they progress, then give way to a high, steady pulse, also passed from one to the other, progressing through harmonic pings and exciting, quick rhythmic interjections and cascading flurries of notes. The pulse re-emerges and morphs continually until it settles into a fast ascending Spanish sequence the closes the movement (called “Radial Glare”). The second movement (“Inward Gaze”) opens with crystalline harmonics and a slowly climbing melody, but at the 30 second mark it shows its hand, as it echoes the familiar somber theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which is then woven throughout the movement. Here, I must acknowledge the fact that Beethoven’s 7th has been my absolute favorite work of classical music since I was a teenager, so I could not have been more delighted to hear Stafylakis’ intriguing integration of that theme—complete with variations, modifications, and extrapolations—in this piece. I should note, though, that much of the piece wanders far from Beethoven’s elegiac tone and theme, and after a joyous and sonorous acceleration actually concludes with a furious assault that ends with the snapping of pulled strings and a great flourish. (When I win the lottery, I am going to commission some great guitar quartet to arrange the full 7th Symphony… It’s gonna be EPIC!)
The other works on the album are similarly intriguing, and give Cowan and Ciccihllitti plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their virtuosity and confirm their telepathic chemistry. The parts (that’s Adam in the left channel, Steve in the right; it’s a great headphones album) seem to have been doled out about evenly and they truly play as one four-armed beast! Andrew Staniland’s Choro: The Joyful Lament for Villa-Lobos features the interesting juxtaposition of some driving, mildly dissonant chords, and circuitous filigrees, with what sounds a little like a Roaring Twenties pop-song vamp (with a repeated motif I can’t get out of my head). There’s a nice tremolo passage in there, too. José Evangelista’s Retazos (which translates as “scraps” or “bits and pieces”) has much more than that title might imply. Each of the five parts is a nicely developed mood piece with its own character, hinted at in the titles of the movements (though I don’t know who Pepe Balaguer is; surely not the Spanish soccer star). Patrick Roux is the composer I know best here, and his contribution, Ombres et Lumières (“Shadows and lights”) is wonderful, again full of contrasts—the “shadows” are somewhat doleful yet pretty; the “lights” more active and rhythmic with more discordant moments. The final work, “River and Cave” by Jason Nobles, is a bit noisy and aggressive for my tastes. . . until it gets to what I presume is the “cave” part, which is spare—I can almost see the drips of water from stalactites—and haunting. I would be curious to hear this performed by two harps, as it was written.
The playing is fantastic throughout the album, which was brilliantly recorded (as always) by Drew Henderson.
Focus: I. Radial Glare, II. Inward Gaze (Henry Stafylakis); Choro: The Joyful Lament for Villa-Lobos (Andrew Staniland); Retazos: I. Recordando a Pepe Balaguer, II. Marcha lenta, III. Alegre, IV. Fluido, V. Escalas (José Evangelista); Ombres et lumières; I. Dans l’ombre, II. Vers la lumière (Patrick Roux); River and Cave (Jason Noble)
American brothers Adam and John Kossler explore a few different eras of more traditional classical repertoire on their superb album Danse Macabre, which features their own transcriptions/arrangements of works by Haydn, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Saint-Saëns. All but the Haydn have keyboard antecedents, so their translation to two guitars feels natural and unforced.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 94 in G Major, is one of the Austrian composer’s most famous—written in 1791 and dubbed the “Surprise Symphony” because of a surprising musical interjection in the andante second movement. It’s an utter delight from beginning to end (all 24 minutes), with a courtly Menuetto third movement and then a breathless allegro finale that really gives the two guitarists a chance to go to town and show their stuff! Trust me, you won’t miss having a full orchestra on this one. (That’s John in the left channel, Adam in the right.)
I really love the two Brahms piano works here, which originally appeared among eight pieces in his Op. 76, written between 1871 and 1879. The first, No. 7 (Intermezzo), has a stately elegance and tonal opacity that reminds me of Beethoven in places, but it still feels Romantic. The second, No. 2 (Capriccio) is bright and tuneful, yet also takes a couple of interesting unexpected turns towards its conclusion. Medelssohn’s Trois Fantasies is well-known in classical piano circles and the translation to guitar is exceptional—the opening Andante con moto alone feels like a complete work (at just over five minutes), as it moves through various tempos and moods. But then there’s still the galloping Scherzo and the absolutely gorgeous and poetic Andante still to come. Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre didn’t surprise me as much as the other works, as I was already a fan of a guitar version by France’s Trio Alborada. Still, the Kossler brothers acquit themselves admirably on their spirited interpretation, which still captures the piece’s somewhat unusual shifts from an almost Carnival waltz vibe to a lacy melodic passage that evolves into darker spaces before resolving with what I can only call a musical question mark. An intriguing piece, for sure.
The previous album by Duo Tandem, Watching the World Go By, was one of my favorite releases of 2018, and I still enjoy its intriguing mix of American folk/blues influences (presumably the domain of Chicagoan Mark Anderson) and Turkish/Greek/Middle Eastern colors and flavors (courtesy of London-based Turkish Cypriot Necati Emirzade). Well, this time out the pendulum has swung completely to the Cypriot side, as the versatile duo gives over their entire release to compositions by Cypriot-British composer Kemal Belevi (b. 1954). Most of the works were originally written for other instrumentation: The four Cyprian Rhapsodies, for example, were written for orchestra, Suite Chypre for guitar and cello, and Turkish Suite for guitar and violin and guitar.
I can’t speak to any of those versions, but Belevi’s arrangements here sound perfect on two guitars! The Mediterranean character of Belevi’s writing comes through on every piece. Traditional Greek and Turkish influences abound, and both of those folk music idioms have Middle Eastern qualities to them, so it’s difficult for me (a mere layman where those styles are concerned) to tell where one ends and another begins. Whatever the case, it’s a glorious amalgam: full of joyful, intoxicating rhythms, catchy melodies and riffs, and enough moments of delicate beauty to allow for introspection and reflection. (Am I the only one who hears Barrios in a couple of those spots?) I found it to be a truly transformative experience to be fully immersed in this exotic-yet-still-familiar musical universe Belevi has created and which Anderson and Emirzade—both virtuosos—so skillfully translate and transmit to all of us over the course of a little more than an hour. (In the stereo spread, Necati is on the left, Mark on the right; the superb recording is by Luca Gardani.)
You really can’t go wrong with this album, and I highly recommend you check it out!
Cyprian Rhapsody No. 1; Suite Chypre: I. Lapta, II.Elegie, III. Çiftetelli; Vals. No. 1;Cyprian Rhapsody No. 2; Vals No. 2; Turkish Suite: I. Danza, II. Song, III. Hicaz; Romance; Cyprian Rhapsody No. 3; Three Fragments; Cyprian Rhapsody No. 4