Album releases: The Great Necks Take Bold Chances and James Akers Salutes 19th Century Women Composers
The Great Necks, L to R: Scott Borg, Adam Levin, Matthew Rohde
Some weeks we take a peek at recent albums or sheet music releases. Here are two of the CDs that have come into the Classical Guitar office within the past few months.
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Some of the albums I write 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 (Amazon, for instance, has outlets in many different countries/regions, but we generally link to the U.S. version), so check your favorite places that sell CDs and downloads, as well as your favorite streaming sites!
To see links to all of our online album listings/reviews, click here.
Original Arrangements for Three Guitars The Great Necks
When this album by the oddly named trio the Great Necks arrived and I saw that the opening piece is Sibelius’ Finlandia, a work I’ve loved since my high school years (back in the pleistocene age), my left eyebrow arched skeptically and I think I muttered to myself, “No way!” How could three guitars possibly capture the drama, the majesty, the beautiful dynamic contrasts of that extraordinary orchestral work? And, to be honest, on first listen I found this arrangement by the Great Necks’ Scott Borg lacking. Though the fervor was unquestionably there—the grandest orchestral gestures are indicated by furious and/or fluttering, deliberately (?) imprecise strumming in the upper and lower registers—I couldn’t shake the sound of the stirring pomp of the full orchestra version. But then something turned for me. I ran across a piano version of the piece on YouTube (Sibelius wrote the piano arrangement himself in 1900, the year after his initial orchestral version) and that comparatively stripped-down interpretation changed my thinking a bit. That allowed me to hear the Great Necks’ version differently, and by the third time through I “got it,” and came to appreciate it on its own terms, and even admire what I can only assume is a sort of calculated looseness, where notes of different timbres dribble or spill within and out of blocks of strumming, almost like afterthoughts. You can really hear these players working, and that translates to power, and all of a sudden I’m thinking: “Wow, three guys did this? Amazing!”
This trio—which, besides Borg, includes Adam Levin and Matthew Rohde—is certainly ambitious: Their entire album consists of their own arrangements for three guitars; most by Borg alone, a few by Borg and Rohde, and one extended piece by Rohde. All are wonderfully arranged and performed. After that unusual and eventful Finlandia, the group serves up four movements of Bach that really highlight what three guitars can do on that kind of intricate music. They’re timing on the “Overture” of Orchestral Suite No. 3 BWV 903 is extraordinary, as they seamlessly pass ornate lines one player to the next, sometimes in what feels like an “answer,” other times combining to create a harmony; always in the flow of the piece. And how nice it is to hear some different Bach repertoire! The way the “Fuga” from Chromatic Fantasy BWV 903 (for harpsichord) builds slowly, inexorably to a speedy gallop that is breathtaking; a wonder to behold.
The version of Villa-Lobos’ Chôros No. 5 features some imaginative colorations, including string-brushing and some percussive body-tapping, but never at the cost of diminishing the piece’s melodic thrust. And the Asturias here is another marvel of ingenuity, with an appended intro (a prelude to the Prelude?), more percussion, all sorts of creative plinks, squeaks, and slightly muted notes, plus unison melody lines in high and low octaves, some of the same kind of raggedly exciting strumming that appears in Finlandia, and what I guarantee is the strangest ending you’ve ever heard on this piece you all know and love (and have perhaps heard too much). These guys aren’t afraid to shake it up and take chances. I applaud them for that, and sincerely hope they are never chased out of an auditorium by torch- and pitchfork-wielding traditionalists!
But they’re clearly not (just) trying to be enfants terribles, as their “straight” interpretations of five Scriabin preludes conclusively demonstrate: Nos. 7 and 15 are as pretty as anything you’ll find anywhere. The concluding Danzón No. 2, by contemporary Mexican composer Arturo Marquez is another orchestral piece (dating back to 1994) that the trio has ingeniously transferred to the guitar with spectacular results.
A supremely satisfying, original album that once again makes me ask this question: why aren’t there more guitar trios?
(By the way, if you’re curious to know who is who in the stereo spread as you listen to engineer Drew Henderson’s crisp, clear, and lively recording, that’s Borg strongest in the left channel, Levin is in the center, and Rohde on the right; the same as their stage setup,)
Finlandia (Sibelius arr. Borg); four movements by Bach (arr. Borg): Overture Orchestral Suite No. 3 BWV 1068, Fuga Chromatic Fantasy BWV 903, Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 659, Toccata “Dorian” BWV 538; Chôros No. 5 “Alma Brasiliera” (Villa-Lobos, arr. Borg); Asturias (Albéniz); Five preludes by Scriabin (arr. Borg and Rohde): No. 4, No. 7, No. 10, No. 15, No 24; Danzón No. 2 (Marquez, arr. Rohde)
Bravo tp the prolific Scottish guitarist James “Jaime” Akers for shining a light on three 19th century women composers on his fantastic new album: Emilia Giuliani (1813–1850), Athénaïs Paulian (1802–c. 1875), and Catharina Pratten (a.k.a Madame Sydney Pratten.) I knew nothing about any of them (though I’d heard of Giuliani and Pratten) and I came away extremely impressed. In his fascinating and provocative liner notes essay, Akers notes that while the three composers suffered the adversity of being women in a male-dominated world and thus were overlooked and “rarely championed or performed. . . to say these women lived lives devoid of appreciation is to do an injustice to their times. Madame Sydney Pratten toured Europe as a child prodigy, was well known in English society, and was the subject of a glowing biography. Athénaïs Paulian was a friend of many of the leading guitarists of the day and a dedicatee of numerous works; while Emilia Giuliani shared the stage with Franz Liszt and was judged his equal by audience and critics alike.” But it is also true that eight of the 14 pieces on this album are premiere recordings, so that would seem to confirm that their work has been largely forgotten.
Those of you who know Akers’ work are aware that he prefers to play on period guitars or replicas; on this album he expertly wields a c. 1820 Saumier, along with a 2015 Panormo copy by James Cole, and a 2012 Stauffer copy by Scott Tremblay. All are expertly captured by engineer John Taylor.
It’s a thoroughly delightful album from top to bottom, very much a 19th century recital. Giuliani (the illegitimate daughter of guitarist-composer Mauro Giuliani) has the most pieces on the album—seven of the 14—and for my money is the most interesting of the three composers, perhaps because her four Preludes feel slightly less wedded to musical conventions of the era, and her artful pastiches based on operatic themes by Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini (a new name to me) and so intriguingly constructed.
But this not to slight the other two women in any way. Pratten’s Rhapsody Funebre and, especially, her Malbrook Fantasia both go to some interesting and compelling places. The latter has an austere opening that sounds slightly Beethovenian and also employs some nice harmonics punctuation. Also notable is Pratten’s piece Elfin’s Revels, in which a “narrator” (Chiara Vinci) reads a short fantasy poem one line at a time, followed by a brief musical interpretation of that line played by Akers, such as “Frisky gnomes frolicking about” or “Now they are running after each other.” The effect is charming. And Paulian’s writing shines on her Mozart variations (on a theme from The Magic Flute) and her effervescent, nicely melodic variations on a pair of Italian songs with which I was not familiar.
Prelude, Belliniana 3, Prelude 2 (all by E. Giuliani); Variations on a theme of Mozart (Paulian); Rhapsody Funebre (Pratten, arr. Akers); Variations on a theme of Rossini, Prelude 3 (both by E. Giuliani); Variations on La Biondina (Paulian); Malbrook Fantasia (Pratten); Prelude 4 (E. Giuliani); Elfin’s Revels (Pratten); Variations on Margin d’un Rio (Paulian); Prelude 6 (E. Giuliani); Carnival de Venice (Pratten)